Chinese scientists and security

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Science  05 Jul 2019:
Vol. 365, Issue 6448, pp. 9
DOI: 10.1126/science.aay5212

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Many scientific and economic successes in the United States are owed to the work of foreign-born scientists. Today, a substantial percentage of U.S patents and scientific publications are contributed by Chinese-born scientists. But there is increasing concern that China is unfairly and systematically attempting to capture intellectual property, trade secrets, and advanced technologies from the United States, all detrimental to productive long-term relationships. As part of the U.S. response to these threats, tenured Chinese-American scientists at top institutions of biomedical research were recently dismissed for purported violations of disclosure rules, breaches of confidentiality, or outright suspicion of espionage. As Congress seeks to protect the open and collaborative approach to science and technology from nefarious activities of foreign states, the scientific community must weigh in on the path forward.

We should remember that for years, scientific exchanges and collaborations with China were encouraged by U.S. policy-makers, including implicit support of China's Thousand Talents Program. Chinese-born as well as American-born federally funded scientists were publicly offered various positions in China over the years without opposition by relevant institutions. The “rules,” now presented and enforced as severe violations of U.S. ethics and intellectual property regulations, were not rigorously implemented by officials at many U.S. institutions. The consternation, sense of targeted discrimination, and fear in the Chinese-American scientific community are thus understandable.

U.S. science and technology are a cornerstone of competitiveness and preeminence in the world, and the security and protection of this vital enterprise are of paramount importance. But unlike most other countries, the United States relies heavily on attracting the best and brightest in the world to its ecosystem of innovation because of an insufficient number of graduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields relative to the size and technological intensity of its economy. Would it be in the national interest to risk losing all or some of the extraordinarily productive Chinese-American scientific diaspora trained and supported for years in the United States?

In my experience in academia, government, and industry, most Chinese-born scientists prefer to stay in the United States for personal and family preferences. One can imagine the glee of Chinese officials at the prospect of thousands of Chinese-American scientists, whom they were unable to recruit until now, relocating back to China. So, what should be done?

Congress is conducting hearings and considering passing the Securing American Science and Technology Act of 2019 as part of the Defense Authorization bill—a good step forward. Although this bill is progressing at its usual pace in the legislative branch, time is not on our side. The executive branch should promptly establish a blue-ribbon panel composed of security experts, agencies representatives, academics, and prominent scientists and engineers under the auspices of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Security Council to fully debate the facts, ways, and means to effectively protect U.S. science and technology while preserving the attractiveness of the United States to talented foreign-born scientists, most particularly from China. It should clearly define new rules of foreign scientific engagement; develop a risk matrix by area of science and technology to guide institutions; instruct agencies such as the Department of Commerce in the implementation of all rules of export or import controls and material and information transfers in a manner similar to that for dual-use research guidelines; mandate a compliance and education program for all concerned; and find explicit ways to reassure the Chinese-American scientific community at large.

No members of any community should be targeted because of their origins, rather than for what they may have intentionally and demonstrably done to harm U.S. science and technology. The United States should not risk losing critical intellectual assets such as productive foreign-born scientists and engineers to global competitors to serve short-term security concerns at the expense of long-term national interests.

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