A Chinese postdoctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shared information on social media about China’s recruitment program for US-based faculty last fall, and within days he was flagged as suspicious and interviewed by federal agents.
At Brigham and Women’s Hospital, government agencies have asked for more detailed information about the backgrounds of Chinese scholars and scientists working in its labs.
Across US campuses, professors and researchers of Chinese descent are reporting delays in receiving visas and more rigorous questioning by American security officials at airports.
In recent months, as US-China trade talks have deteriorated and federal agencies have aggressively pursued potential cases of espionage, academics of Chinese descent say they are being increasingly singled out for scrutiny. They include Chinese citizens studying and working in the United States, as well as naturalized Americans, many of them working in technology or the sciences. Many fear that as a result they will be iced out of projects and crucial federal funding for their work.
“How can you be sure with this kind of environment that it won’t happen? You just don’t know,” said Yasheng Huang, a Chinese-American international business professor focused on the Chinese economy who has taught at MIT since 2003. “Under national security, almost anything goes.”
Huwenbo Shi, 28, a Chinese citizen and postdoctoral researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has been studying in the United States since he was in high school. These days, he said, some foreign scientists no longer present their work at US conferences because they have been denied visas. For Shi himself, travel in and out of the United States used to be smooth, but recently he was asked by airport security officials about his travel plans and where he is studying.
“It was a mild experience, but that freaked me out a bit,” Shi said. He now avoids traveling to China as much as possible, for fear that the US government might put a hold on his visa. “A hold on a visa could result in several months of lost research time.”
The United States should protect its innovations and technology from foreign spies, Shi said, but it needs to strike a balance.
“The recent sentiment is definitely veering toward discrimination,” he said. “A small fraction of foreign researchers might have malicious intent. Most of them are just regular people who are curious about the world and want to make their own contributions to science.”
American universities have long welcomed Chinese students and faculty. One in three of the more than 1 million international students on US campuses are Chinese, by far the largest single group.
Some arrive as students and stay on to work and become naturalized citizens. In the Boston area, they work in hospitals and technology startups. Many operate their own research labs, doing work on Alzheimer’s disease, gene editing, and nanotechnology.
For the past decade, though, the US government has feared that China’s ascent has been driven at America’s expense and with the use of technology and science research stolen from US companies and universities.
The Obama administration launched several investigations against researchers and academics of Chinese descent, although, in some cases, the charges were dropped. The US government has stepped up its counter-intelligence efforts and rhetoric against China under the Trump administration.
The FBI and the National Institutes of Health, one of the leading funders of scientific research on US campuses, have warned that China’s efforts to recruit American faculty are a way for the Beijing government to acquire technical knowledge and research. Many universities have begun warning their scholars that participating in such talent recruitment programs, which used to be considered an honor, might put their research funding at risk.
Last year, Politico reported that at a private dinner, President Trump said of China that “almost every student that comes over to this country is a spy.”
And the NIH has launched a wide-ranging probe into foreign interference, including whether scientists it funds are also receiving undisclosed sums from an overseas government or if researchers have equity stakes in foreign businesses that rely on NIH-funded research. So far, the vast majority of investigations have involved China ties.
The NIH has sent more than 100 letters to some 60 institutions nationwide raising questions about funding relationships that faculty and scholars may have with overseas governments and companies and concerns that those relationships were not properly disclosed. About half of those cases were referred to the NIH from the FBI, according to the funding agency.
The NIH has also found instances when scientists are sharing what are supposed to be confidential peer-review applications with counterparts, including those outside the United States, said Michael Lauer, the agency’s deputy director for extramural research.
Scientists submit their work for private peer feedback with the expectation that it won’t be disseminated around the globe, where it could be replicated, Lauer said.
This past spring, Emory University and MD Anderson Cancer Center, part of the University of Texas system, jettisoned ethnically Chinese researchers and faculty members as a result of these NIH letters over undisclosed ties and sharing of confidential peer-review documents.
The academics have disputed any wrongdoing.
The NIH is also seeking to bar 18 scientists from federal grant funding as a result of its investigations and will probably recommend that additional scientists be suspended from receiving grants, agency officials said.
“It’s open season if you’re a Chinese-American scientist. They’ve got a target on their back,” said Peter Zeidenberg, a former federal prosecutor who has represented several Chinese-American professors and researchers in these espionage-related cases. “They are extremely alarmed and afraid.”
The NIH insists it is not singling out researchers of Chinese descent. The agency is trying to protect US intellectual property and ensure that the researchers it funds with taxpayer money aren’t serving multiple masters, said Lauer.
“We’re not focused on specific people with specific backgrounds,” Lauer said. “We’re focused on some very specific behaviors.”
Lauer noted that the more than 100 letters it sent out represent a small fraction of the 60,000 active grants at the agency and the $30 billion it spends on research annually.
Critics have argued that while failing to properly disclose receiving research funds from Chinese entities is wrong, it hardly amounts to espionage. The research and foreign funds are usually disclosed in published papers eventually, and their work is generally open to all, scientists said.
But they are concerned that universities are quick to dismiss researchers when the NIH gets involved for fear of losing out on future funds.
Lauer argues, however, that nondisclosure is not a trivial matter.
“We want to make sure the scientists have the time and resources to get the work done and the work we are funding is unique,” he said.
University presidents are beginning to push back on what they perceive as overreaching by the federal government.
MIT president L. Rafael Reif in June acknowledged in a public letter to the community that universities need to do more to secure their research and guard against academic espionage, but he cautioned against creating a “toxic atmosphere of unfounded suspicion and fear.”
“Faculty members, post-docs, research staff, and students tell me that, in their dealings with government agencies, they now feel unfairly scrutinized, stigmatized, and on edge — because of their Chinese ethnicity alone,” Reif wrote.
The presidents of Yale and Stanford universities, among several others, have also sought to reassure their ethnically Chinese scholars and voiced concerns about the growing tensions between security and academic collaboration.
Harvard president Lawrence Bacow will be in Washington, D.C., later this month to meet with congressional leaders and members of the Trump administration and plans to bring up this issue.
“I am deeply concerned about the tone of the current US-China dialogue and the detrimental impact on this vibrant and vital scholarly exchange,” Bacow said in a statement.
At MIT, the story of the post-doctoral engineer’s run-in with federal agents spread within the campus Chinese community as an indication of the changed climate in the United States. Though there’s no indication charges were ever filed against him, the engineer has returned to China and could not be reached for comment. Officials with MIT and the FBI declined to comment on his or any specific case. The journal Nature first reported on the engineer.
Some scientists and faculty members of Chinese descent said they feel anxious because they are uncertain about what small act could potentially trigger an investigation and threaten their work.
They may ultimately leave to study and work in countries where they feel more welcomed, said Y. Shrike Zhang, an associate bioengineer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
“The Chinese community is contributing a lot, and if all those people leave, it’s a real loss,” Zhang said. “Science should be collaborative. There should not be any boundaries . . . provided all the rules are strictly followed.”