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Opinion | Arthur W. Lambert

A scientific Red Scare

Andrey Yudin -

There are many fronts in the ongoing trade war with China, and the conflict has now spilled over into our biomedical research laboratories, intensifying in troubling ways during the last few months. There seems to be a type of scientific McCarthyism beginning to take hold across the Trump administration, with funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health launching numerous investigations into scientists with foreign ties. Of course the administration can’t say so explicitly, but the effective target is clear: Chinese scientists are in their crosshairs.

I am a postdoctoral researcher at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, where I study cancer biology. Many of my colleagues are Chinese. Speaking with them makes clear the toll these policies are taking on these bright researchers. They are surprised by this new scrutiny and worried that simply being a Chinese scientist carries the presumption of guilt-by-association.


Last month, MIT President Rafael Reif sent a letter to the MIT community warning against the risks of creating “a toxic environment of unfounded suspicion and fear” toward scientists of Chinese descent. But it may be too late. I am worried that many already feel less welcome.

How did we get here?

The crackdown appears to have escalated last summer, when the NIH issued a statement that outlined a number of foreign threats to US biomedical research, such as researchers failing to disclose funding from foreign governments and the sharing of confidential material or intellectual property from grant applications with “foreign entities.” Hundreds of scientists appear to be under investigation and already five scientists — three from MD Anderson Cancer Center and two from Emory University — have lost their positions. All five researchers are Chinese or Chinese-American.

It’s difficult to know if the charges amount to some kind of foreign espionage or not. Funding from another government could create conflicts in the ownership of intellectual property or could indicate that an NIH-funded scientist is spending an inordinate amount of time doing research for another country. Sharing information contained in grant proposals is an obvious violation but also a technical one, and is hardly uncommon, since scientists may ask for input from their colleagues or trainees. It is unclear whether these scientists were acting as de facto agents of the Chinese government working to surreptitiously export valuable new science or whether they may have just been ethically careless and overly ambitious. In any case, at worst this would seem to represent the actions of a few bad actors.


Protecting the integrity of our biomedical research system, as well as any resulting innovations and technologies, is clearly important. But these investigations are only part of the story. Throughout the Trump administration there have been more insidious changes, most notably involving visas. Once-routine visa requests are now automatically put on lengthy administrative processing delays, sometimes precluding foreign researchers from traveling to conferences or accepting positions as visiting scientists. Many Chinese scientists have heard stories of friends or mentors facing unexpected questioning from customs agents or even a visit from the FBI.

All of this has led to a perceptible cooling in how many Chinese scientists feel about research in the United States, which I suppose is actually the point. These policies have costs, though, and it’s worth considering what they are.


For one, they threaten our most basic principle of equality and raise the obvious question of whether these policies amount to racial profiling of Chinese scientists. The administration has been adamant that this is not the case, but most of the investigations seem to involve researchers with connections to China. Certainly the Chinese scientists I have spoken with feel unfairly targeted. Some of this enhanced scrutiny probably stems from the Thousand Talents program, a Chinese program designed to lure back prominent foreign-based scientists with lucrative funding packages. But the rhetoric of the administration cannot be ignored. Last year, for instance, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that China represents a “whole-of-society threat.”

Second, they are bad for science. Biomedical research is a global endeavor, often involving international collaborations and clinical trials. The scientific problems it addresses are mostly agnostic to borders. There may well be reasons to restrict foreign access to, say, advanced weapons technologies. It’s harder to justify delaying a visa for a Chinese scientist who wants to attend a cancer research conference. If these measures deter fruitful collaborations, as they are likely to do, we all stand to lose out on the benefits of new biomedical discoveries.

Finally, and most practically, they are unlikely to work in the long run. Our labs have always been populated by scientists from other countries. In the group of 15 or so scientists I work with there are six or seven nations represented. Indeed, our great scientific advantage has been our unique ability to bring in the best minds from around the world. If Chinese scientists no longer feel welcome in the United States, they will — to our loss — simply go elsewhere or stay put in China.


The purported objective here, like the larger political conflict with China, is to maintain our competitive advantage, in this case scientifically. But the approach of the Trump administration threatens us with a great irony: We may protect our current scientific innovations while sacrificing those of the future, which undoubtedly depend on immigrants, including many from China.

It’s as ironic as it is cliché: We could win the battle but lose the war.

Arthur W. Lambert is a postdoctoral researcher at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.