The escalating trade war and the simmering political tensions between US and China are increasingly affecting research. According to academics and legal experts, the US government crackdown on foreign influence on research is taking its toll on Chinese American researchers in particular, and US academia at large.
The latest incident comes from Emory University in Atlanta, where a tenured professor of Chinese origin has been told to vacate his office by the end of June. Officials say nothing about an alternate arrangement for his office on campus. Professor Shan Ping Yu said that he was told in a follow-up meeting that if he doesn’t move out, they will send people to do it. Yu is a tenured professor of anesthesiology at the university.
Yu, who has been holding an endowed chair since coming to Emory in 2008, has been advised to take an office 4 kilometres away from the campus. Yu said that it would be impossible for him to continue his research and mentoring his responsibilities without an office on campus. “I think they want me to leave and this is the first step”—says Yu.
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On March 17, Yu and eight other faculty members sent a letter to the president of Emory, Claire Stark. In the letter they asked her to follow the example of the Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, where the presidents of these university’s voiced their support for protecting their international faculties and students from any and all kinds of mistreatment and discrimination.
The backdrop of the letter signed by Yu and others was the announcement by several funding agencies including the National Institute of Health (NIH), where it was said that actions should be taken to prevent foreign governments, especially China, from improperly acquiring intellectual property developed by US-funded research.
Last month, Emory dismissed two of the signatories of the letter, Li Xiao-Jiang and Li Shihua, after university officials declared that they couldn’t disclose funding and other ties with Chinese institutions. All of them are of Asian origin and have been Emory faculty members for decades.
Yu is currently handling NIH funds of US$ 1.5 million that was granted in 2018, along with other projects and have also applied for more grants from the NIH. But, Emory officials said that Yu’s research is waning and his office space has to be given to a newly appointed faculty member in the university.
The NIH Initiatives
Last August, Francis Collins, the director of NIH sent a letter to more than 10,000 US institutions where it was said that some foreign entities are interfering the funding and research and peer review of the projects funded by the NIH. Collins came out with a statement in April where he said that dozens of institutes were found to have breached the agency’s rule.
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A week after Collin’s statement, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Centre dismissed three researchers, all of them being Chinese. However, two among them chose to resign before their dismissal orders came in. They were accused of breach of confidentiality that include sharing their grant proposals and they were also accused of failing in disclosing foreign funds and affiliations abroad.
Many academics are now raising the concern of a racial profiling being underway, as the investigations do not focus on espionage involving the Chinese government.
“We don’t have enough information to make the call on whether there is racial profiling going on or not, but there is concern,” says Steven Pei, a physicist at the University of Houston.
However, both the NIH and the MD Anderson Centre are adamant on their position that their actions have nothing to do with any kind of racial profiling.
The initiatives go beyond NIH. The US Department of Energy, in a memo released in January, declared that it would no longer allow its employees to take part in any kind of talent-recruitment programmes initiated by sensitive countries. This move has clear indication of a ban on Chinese government’s Thousand Talents Plan, where the plan is to bring leading academics back to China and get them engaged in domestic research.
According to Nature News, since June 2018, the US state department has restricted visas for Chinese graduate students in robotics, aviation and high tech manufacturing, at least for a year. Also, there was an enactment of legislation by US Congress which says that the Defence Department has to investigate foreign influence in academic programmes. Changes of these kinds are also changing the environment of academics for the ethnic Chinese in the US.
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