Tensions between the U.S. and China, such as the ongoing trade conflict, have begun to strain relationships in academia. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), which provides about $26 billion in federal grants every year to biomedical research centers, has launched a massive investigation into foreign scientists suspected of infringing on agency policies. In August 2018, NIH Director Francis Collins wrote to more than 10,000 research institutions that “foreign entities have mounted systematic programs to influence NIH researchers and peer reviewers.” Later in June 2019, the NIH reported to the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance that they reached out to 61 research institutions concerning suspicions of employees who may have withheld information, mainly about undisclosed relations with foreign governments. The NIH has teamed up with the FBI to launch investigations following concerns that foreign countries are taking advantage of federally-funded research. NIH reports that at least 50 research institutions have followed in their lead and opened internal investigations into foreign employees.
The NIH and FBI’s extensive investigation into universities has alarmed the Chinese-American community. Panic has spread as more scholars are being accused. The news of top Chinese researchers being fired or pressured to leave by ongoing investigations has intensified the fear that officials are targeting scientists on account of their ethnicity. Many institutions have denied the accusation that those specifically of Chinese descent are being targeted, and instead stated that they are being investigated on the basis of ethics. In April, FBI Director Christopher Wray explained that they were investigating ethnic Chinese scientists because “China has pioneered a societal approach to stealing innovation in any way it can from a wide array of businesses, universities, and organizations.” The FBI and NIH are concerned that China is recruiting people to steal confidential American research and information. The NIH is seemingly targeting and investigating Chinese scholars at American research centers and universities, which has led many scientists to be fired or pressured to leave. Chinese students have also been affected. The government has begun to screen the visas of Chinese students studying science or technology with greater scrutiny.
The NIH has directly contributed to the recent firings. A week after being notified by the NIH, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center intended to oust three Chinese scientists, but two of the scientists decided to resign first. An internal investigation report revealed that “the scientists were accused of breaching confidentiality, including by sharing grant proposals that they were reviewing, and by failing to disclose foreign funding and affiliations at institutions abroad.” Dr. Xifeng Wu, an epidemiologist and American citizen, and three top Chinese American scientists have departed from the MD Anderson Cancer Center following investigations carried out by the NIH and the FBI. Additionally, the Houston Chronicle reports that at least 10 other Chinese researchers or staff members have either been pressured to leave or were forced out.
In May, Atlanta’s Emory University fired two biomedical researchers and shut down their lab without notice. Along with the two scientists, four Chinese postdoctoral students were asked to leave the U.S. within 30 days. In Emory’s official statement concerning this situation, the university claimed that the two researchers “had failed to fully disclose foreign sources of research funding, and the extent of their work for research institutions and universities in China.” The two researchers have been identified as geneticists Li Xiaojiang and Li Shihua. The married couple have been working at Emory for over 20 years and are American citizens. Li Xiaojiang has since denied any wrongdoing, and stated that all of his work with Chinese institutions was reported to Emory along with his sources of funding. On May 31, Emory asked Yu Shanping to move out of his office by the end of June. Yu believes that he was targeted due to a letter that he and other Emory faculty members sent to Emory President Claire Sterk. The letter was a collaborative effort to ask President Sterk to defend international faculty and students in response to actions by the NIH and other agencies to stop the theft of U.S. intellectual property. Both Li Xiaojiang and Li Shihua were co-signers of this letter. Yu, a professor of anesthesiology, has worked at Emory for over a decade and has since searched for legal aide to determine his response. A third co-signer of the letter has also decided to depart from Emory.
While the MD Anderson Cancer Center and Emory University have been the most publicly involved in the firing of Chinese employees, the NIH has also contacted dozens of other institutions about potential violators. The NIH has written letters to the Baylor College of Medicine, UT Health Science Center, and an anonymous major research university identifying eight staff members who may have broken NIH rules. Baylor and the anonymous university have confirmed that seven of the named researchers violated NIH rules, but their infractions were not serious enough to be punishable. All seven of these researchers are ethnically Chinese, and it is unknown how the universities responded to their cases.
In the current political climate and the generally sour state of U.S.-China relations, academia has felt the impact of the Trump administration’s increasing crackdown on a number of Chinese researchers’ alleged collusion with China. Chinese scholars are feeling the pressure, and many are considering leaving their posts on their own accord before they may be accused or pressured to leave. Many Chinese communities and organizations are furious that Chinese scholars are being targeted due to perceptions that they are being targeted because of their race or national origin. They have collaboratively written letters, raising concerns about the issue and calling for change. Chinese-American communities continue to condemn what they perceive as the government’s unfair profiling and targeting of many of the community’s leading scholars and experts.
Ackerman, Todd. “Chinese-American group unsettled by MD Anderson faculty ousters.” Houston Chronicle, 30 Apr. 2019, www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Chinese-American-group-slam-MD-Anderson-for-13805364.php.
Cohen, Jon. “Terminated Emory researcher disputes university’s allegations about China ties.” Science, 24 May 2019, www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/05/terminated-emory-researcher-disputes-university-s-allegations.