A recent virtual event that included prominent members of the Stanford University community focused on the racial profiling of scientists of Chinese descent and the negative impact such profiling is having on scientific research in the United States.
The Committee of 100, a nonpartisan leadership organization of prominent Chinese Americans in business, government, academia and the arts, organized the event, which took place on Oct. 28. Stanford alumnus Zheng Yu Huang serves as president of the Committee of 100, whose membership also includes Jerry Yang, the chair of Stanford’s Board of Trustees.
During the event, presenters reviewed the results of a research project, conducted by the Committee of 100 in collaboration with the University of Arizona, assessing the consequences of the so-called China Initiative. An effort launched by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2018, the China Initiative’s intention is to counter national security threats that could be posed by China through economic espionage, trade secret theft and the covert influencing of the U.S. public and policymakers.
As of September 2021, federal agents have brought more than a dozen prosecutions against university-affiliated researchers as part of the initiative. Most cases have involved alleged fraud by researchers on grant applications for not disclosing connections to Chinese universities and governmental entities when seeking U.S. taxpayer-funded research support. Four cases have resulted in convictions, but most have not, instead, upending the accused individuals’ lives and putting international scholarship between China and Chinese Americans under a cloud.
Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne spoke at the conference in support of Chinese and Chinese American students and scholars, as well as about the importance of cross-border collaboration and maintaining diversity in our classrooms and research labs.
“Today, Stanford has more than 1,000 students and scholars from China, as well as many Chinese American students and scholars,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “We know that the strength of our community comes from embracing our diversity, and all that our varied perspectives and backgrounds bring to the table. So I’m deeply concerned about the challenges that individuals of Chinese descent face in their ability to learn, to collaborate and to make contributions to our fundamental research enterprise.”
This sentiment was echoed by the research project results presented at the event. The project centered on a survey of around 2000 scientists nationwide and sought to reveal the influence of the U.S. government’s limitations on international exchange with China on research and academics.
The report found that among scientists of Chinese descent, 42% of survey respondents reported feeling racially profiled by the U.S. government, with a similar percentage harboring fear or anxiety over possibly being surveilled. Another 38% of respondents reported difficulty in obtaining research funding and a similar percentage reported experiencing professional challenges, such as promotion or professional recognition, as a result of their race, nationality, or country of origin.
“In the African-American community, there’s a term, ‘driving while black,’” Huang said during the event. “That refers to African Americans being pulled over by police at a much higher rate because of the color of their skin. In the Chinese American community, we now have a comparable saying, ‘researching while Chinese American.’ That refers to scientists of Chinese descent who are more likely to be suspected of spying for China simply because of their ethnicity and national origin.”
As a result of this racial profiling, Chinese American scientists reported that they tended to focus their research on “safer” topics less likely to invite scrutiny, versus pursuing cutting-edge research in hot topic areas. Some researchers also expressed feeling less interested in applying for federal grants.
“This research confirms a chilling effect is indeed taking place throughout the scientific community and particularly among those of Chinese descent, including our citizens,” said Jenny J. Lee, a professor of educational policy studies and practice at the University of Arizona whose research team led the project.
Lee also added that the problems identified in the report may be significantly worse than tabulated because the study was conducted in the current China Initiative-era, which “likely limited the response rate and the extent of self-reported collaboration,” Lee said.
The chilling effect is all the more unfortunate given that the surveyed scientists overwhelmingly recognized the value of Chinese scientists and supported U.S. collaboration with China. Nearly 97% of Chinese scientists and nearly 94% of non-Chinese scientists agreed that Chinese scientists make important contributions to research and teaching programs in their field, and approximately 92% and 82% of Chinese and non-Chinese scientists, respectively, said that the U.S. should build stronger research collaboration with China.
Peter F. Michelson, the senior associate dean for the natural sciences at Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences was a panelist during the recent Committee of 100 event. Michelson pointed out that U.S. national security is enhanced through engagement with China, rather than confrontation. The major challenges the world collectively faces in the 21st century can be far better met, Michelson said, with these two world powers working together.
“As far as the national security aspects, I’d just like to say … it’s important with appropriate careful boundary conditions to actually promote academic research and scholarship and scientific collaboration with scientists and institutions in China. We should not be discouraging it. And I’m worried that that’s in fact what we’re doing,” Michelson said. “I would include on the list of national security challenges climate change and pandemics, and we need international collaboration and exchange at the very least to deal with those national security challenges.”
Participants at the event hope that the report’s findings will bolster efforts to end the profiling of scientists of Chinese descent. The report follows on the heels of an open letter, signed by 177 Stanford faculty members, including the letter’s co-organizers Michelson and Steven Kivelson, the Prabhu Goel Family Professor in H&S, that was sent to the U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland on Sept. 8 requesting the termination of the China Initiative. Hundreds of faculty members at other universities have since endorsed the letter.