Chinese scholars express uneasiness about the growing trend of federal scrutiny

LJ Davids

Earlier this year, Yiguang Ju, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton, was offered a prestigious opportunity to serve on a U.S. Air Force advisory board. “I thought it was a great honor, but after a few hours I turned it down,” Ju says. “If I do that with today’s environment, it may bring me trouble.”

A new note of caution has entered the professional calculations of Chinese-born scientists working in the United States — even those who, like Ju, hold American citizenship. Since last year, a crackdown on what federal science agencies describe as violations of ethical research-funding practices has been followed by severe repercussions — firings, a resignation, and in one case a criminal indictment — for at least seven Asian American scientists around the country, most or all of them Chinese-born.


Although government officials insist that misbehavior, not race or national origin, is at issue, not everyone is so sure, especially given the Trump administration’s immigration policies and trade war with China.

At Princeton and elsewhere, ethnic Chinese scientists draw parallels to some of history’s darker moments, such as McCarthyism and the wartime internment of Japanese Americans.

“Researchers of Chinese descent are feeling profiled,” says Michael A. Fisher *10, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists.

Politicians of both parties have argued for years that China exploits the open academic culture of the United States to steal intellectual property, and the issue surfaced again in February 2018, when FBI Director Christopher Wray complained to the Senate Intelligence Committee about “the level of naïveté on the part of the academic sector” regarding what he described as information collection by Chinese scholars and students.

Six months later, the National Institutes of Health, a major source of taxpayer-funded research grants, began contacting more than 60 American universities, alleging rule-breaking by some of their researchers, including violations of the confidentiality of grant proposals and failures to disclose foreign funding sources, international employment, and potential conflicts of interest. Princeton did not receive an NIH letter, University spokesman Ben Chang says.

“We found one person with a $5 million startup package from a Chinese university that wasn’t disclosed to anybody, not to his American university and not to us,” Michael Lauer, NIH’s deputy director for extramural research, told the journal Science in June. “This is not subtle. It’s not an ‘Oops, I forgot to list it on a form.’ We’re talking about really, really egregious stuff.”

Two Chinese-born researchers at Emory University and three Asian Americans whose national origins were not disclosed at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston lost their jobs, apparently after NIH inquiries. A Chinese-born eye specialist at the University of California, San Diego, resigned, and a chemistry professor at the University of Kansas, Feng Tao *06, was charged with fraud for allegedly failing to disclose his connection with a Chinese university while he was receiving U.S. grant funds, according to the Department of Justice. It’s not clear whether the California and Kansas cases grew out of the NIH probe.

Meanwhile, Chinese students and professors — including several at Princeton — have faced long, unexplained delays in getting visas to work or study in the United States. And the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, both sources of government research grants, have tightened rules regarding employment of non-citizens and employees’ involvement with foreign research initiatives.

Princeton scientists of Chinese descent say the heightened concern over intellectual-property theft is confusing, because most federally funded research is eventually published.

“Steal what? Steal published results?” asks Kai Li, a professor of computer science. “The impression people have now in the Chinese faculty community is that basic research now becomes classified research — but then you publish in the public domain. There’s no logic to this.”

Given that lack of clarity, Li recently decided against collaborating with an American-born colleague on an NSF grant application. Better to avoid taking government money, he concluded.

In response to the fears of their Chinese students and faculty, the leaders of universities from Yale to the University of California, Davis, have begun speaking out. Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger published a Washington Post op-ed criticizing stepped-up FBI scrutiny of foreign-born scholars. MIT released an email in which President L. Rafael Reif called it “heartbreaking” that ethnically Chinese scholars “feel unfairly scrutinized, stigmatized, and on edge.”

In May, 17 Princeton professors of Chinese descent emailed President Eisgruber ’83 asking that he voice support for international scholars. “Our concern is that Chinese American scholars have become collateral damage in the crossfire of the trade war between the Trump administration and the Chinese government,” they wrote. “The contributions and loyalties of Chinese Americans to the American society as a whole are questioned solely due to our ethnic background.”

In his reply, Eisgruber said he shared their concerns and noted his participation in several pro-immigration initiatives. “I believe that immigration issues require active advocacy directed at Washington, rather than mere statements,” he wrote.

That position doesn’t entirely satisfy every faculty member who signed the original email. “Why not speak loudly and for one more time? You are a leader of diversity and academic freedom,” says Ju — the mechanical engineering professor — in an email. “That kind of value has to be propagated further and deeper so that we could enjoy and feel the support. Right now, many of us are waiting for a strong and clear statement from our president.”

The stepped-up government pressure forces universities to strike a difficult balance, says Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities, which represents 62 leading research universities, including Princeton. Although administrators worry about the potential harm to fruitful international collaborations, Smith says, they can’t afford to seem cavalier about bipartisan fears of Chinese encroachment.

Earlier this year, the AAU co-authored a memo offering universities advice on how best to protect intellectual property against foreign threats. “There are really good practices out there,” Smith says. “We just need to show that we’re taking these things seriously.” It’s not clear if the memo reached Princeton: “We’ve not been able to find a copy,” Chang says.

China is the United States’ largest source of foreign-born graduate students, by far. In 2017, nearly 16 percent of the science and engineering doctorates awarded by American institutions went to Chinese students, according to NSF data.

Historically, many foreigners who earn degrees in the United States choose to stay, but Princeton’s Chinese American faculty worry the government crackdown could end up backfiring by pushing out talented foreign-born scientists.

“What’s happening is doing a great service for the Chinese government,” says Yibin Kang, a professor of molecular biology at Princeton. “If you turn this into a toxic environment, you’re actually helping the Chinese government to then recruit back to China.”