Scientists’ fear of racial bias mounts amid US crackdown on ties with China – Community News
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Scientists’ fear of racial bias mounts amid US crackdown on ties with China

People protest anti-Asian hatred and the rise in hate crime with placards and American flags during a march in New York City.

Asian Americans have protested in recent years against anti-Chinese actions and rhetoric by the US government.Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty

The US government’s search for spies in labs and businesses has fueled fears for scientists of Chinese descent and damaged collaboration with researchers in China, according to a survey of nearly 2,000 scientists.

“There was a lot of speculation about this idea,” said Jenny Lee, a social scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson who studies research collaborations and geopolitics. Lee is one of the co-authors of the study and its accompanying report. “What we wanted to do was actually look for the evidence.”

Launched under former US President Donald Trump, the China initiative has resulted in several well-publicized arrests of scientists since 2018, often for ties to associates or institutions in China. The US government has said the goal of the effort is to stop the theft of US trade secrets by the Chinese government.

But civil rights groups and individual researchers have warned that the US government’s research on scientists under this program has hindered valuable scientific collaborations with researchers in China. They have also warned that researchers of Chinese descent feel unfairly scrutinized for their race and ethnicity, which amounts to racial profiling.

“We’ve seen anecdotal evidence about the chilling effects of the China initiative,” said Ashley Gorski, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in New York City. “The research makes it clear that the effects are far-reaching.”

Far-reaching effects

Between May and July 2021, 1,949 scientists from the United States took part in the study, the results of which were published in a white paper on October 28. The project was supported by the Committee of 100, an organization of Chinese American leaders in New York City. One third of the respondents indicated that they were of Chinese descent. About 40% were not Chinese and a quarter did not report their racial or ethnic background.

Scientists anxious: Bar chart showing the results of a survey of scientists of Chinese descent and non-Chinese scientists.

Source: Jenny Lee/XiaoJie Li/Committee of 100

About half of the scientists of Chinese descent reported experiencing “significant” fear, anxiety, or a combination of both of being watched by the US government. Only 12% of non-Chinese scientists reported that concern (see ‘Scientists anxious’). Just over 42% of scientists of Chinese descent reported feeling racially profiled by the US government, compared to 9% of non-Chinese scientists.

More scientists of Chinese descent than others said they find it more difficult to obtain research funding because of their race or ethnicity, and feel they face professional challenges for similar reasons. (The US National Science Foundation funded 21% of grants from Asian applicants in 2019, compared to 29% of white applicants. In 2020, the US National Institutes of Health funded 27% of Asian applicants, compared to 31% of white applicants. applicants.)

“The differences are undeniable in a way that’s pretty profound for people of Chinese descent,” Lee says.

Andrea Liu, a physicist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, is disappointed by the large differences the research reveals in the attitudes of Chinese versus non-Chinese scientists. “It’s hard for me to see how anyone following the news about the China initiative could fully support all the investigations,” she says. “We still have a lot of work to do to inform our non-Chinese colleagues about what happened.” Liu has partnered with the American Physical Society (APS) — a membership-based professional organization of some 55,000 physicists based in College Park, Maryland — to help researchers understand the US government’s evolving research security requirements .

Of the survey participants who said they had researched China in the past 3 years, about 23% of scientists of Chinese descent said they decided to stop collaborating with researchers in China, while only 10% of the other respondents said the same.

Lee warns that the data is likely an underestimate. In response to the investigation, some researchers of Chinese descent emailed them asking whether it was a surveillance ploy by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has been responsible for investigations under the China Initiative. “There was a suspicion that this would be used as a trap by the FBI to identify scientists working with China,” Lee says. “What this also tells us is that the problems are probably much worse than being reported.”

Calls are getting louder

Justice Department officials who attended during the Trump administration said the focus of the China initiative was not on the ethnicity or race of individuals, but rather on people’s activity and behavior. Earlier this year, US President Joe Biden’s Attorney General Merrick Garland said the US government will fight espionage from China while protecting the civil rights of people of Asian descent in the United States.

Meanwhile, calls from scientific groups to end the China Initiative as it was conceived have grown louder. In September, 177 faculty members at Stanford University in California sent a letter to Garland requesting that the China initiative stop. Faculty members from other top universities supported this call. Also that month, the APS wrote to Biden’s scientific adviser, Eric Lander, and Garland, asking the government to change its approach, including renaming the initiative.

The preliminary results of a poll conducted in September by the APS, which surveyed 3,200 physicists and students, align with the findings of Lee and her colleagues. The group reports that 40% of foreign early-career researchers who visited the United States to study or work said the country’s approach to research safety made them less likely to stay in the country. Foreign researchers are an important part of the American science and engineering workforce.

“The irony is that trying to compete with China is actually undermining our efforts,” Lee says.