Science is being affected by geopolitics and it’s becoming increasingly evident in the unfolding events in the scientific community in the United States. The continuing – and worsening, according to many political analysts – political tensions between the United States and China have adversely affected it.
Several universities in America are expected to announce their respective actions against Chinese scientists caught in violation of the funding rules of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This was made by Francis Collins, the NIH director, to the Senate Appropriations Committee last week.
Even top scientists who have been frequent visitors to the U.S. have reported experiencing significant delays in getting their short-term visas. These include Jian-Wei Pan, the star quantum physicist who heads China’s super-secure quantum communication program at the University of Science and Technology of China.
Pan reportedly has missed conferences in the U.S. in April 2019 alone. These included the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference where he would have received the Newcomb Cleveland Prize. He wasn’t granted a visa on time although he has finally received a single-entry, three-month visa; he said that he has previously obtained multiple entry visas for one year.
The current issue stems from the accusations made by the United States against China’s role in distorting global trade through a two-pronged approach. First, it offered generous subsidies to several favored industries and, second, it restricted access of foreign companies to its domestic markets.
The American government also asserts that China’s trade policies are forcing American companies to exchange intellectual property rights in favor of greater access to Chinese markets. The Chinese government, it added, has supported cyberattacks on American companies’ technology secrets.
The current trade war started under President Trump’s administration, although there were several rounds of negotiations intended to resolve the issues. The national governments of each nation started imposing tariffs on the other country’s goods, and it started with Trump placing tariffs on 818 Chinese goods. In retaliation, China put tariffs on 545 American goods.
Even with more meetings, the two countries have yet to strike more favorable trading terms. Unfortunately, science and the scientific community were sucked in unwillingly into the trade war.
In August 2018, Collins expressed his concerns about some foreign entities interfering in the research, review and funding of projects supported by the NIH. He did so in a letter sent to more than 10,000 institutions in the U.S. that received NIH funding.
Then just last week, Collins stated that investigations conducted at 55 universities in the U.S. have uncovered shocking violations of rules regarding NIH grants. These violations included grant recipients’ failure to disclose foreign government money or their diversion of intellectual property from American institutions to other countries including China. He added that facility members may be fired as a result.
The NIH isn’t the only government agency taking drastic actions against foreign nationals and its own employees to curb, if not prevent, intellectual property theft, among others.
In February 2019, the Department of Energy (DOE) issued an inter-office memo banning its employees, grant recipients, and scientists on contract from participation in talent recruitment programs operated by governments of so-called sensitive countries. The agency apparently fears that the participants may share or exchange sensitive government-funded research with foreign nationals.
While there was no specific mention of China in the memo, it should be pointed out that China runs a large talent recruitment program, called the Thousand Talents Plan, since 2008. The plan’s incentives have encouraged thousands of Chinese scientists and engineers to return to China, even those who have already migrated to the U.S.
In June 2019, the U.S. State Department has also followed suit by imposing new restrictions on visa issuances. Chinese graduates who want to study aviation, robotics, and advanced manufactured in the U.S. will only be granted a one-year visa, if they qualify. The previous policy allowed Chinese students to get five-year visas.
The goal in the change of policy was to reduce the risk of intellectual property theft and spying by foreign nationals in areas essential to national security.
Pan isn’t the only top Chinese scientist that has been experiencing trouble in getting visas, attending conferences, and collaborating with scientists in the U.S. Last December 2018, nearly 300 Chinese nationals didn’t show up or withdrew their participation in the American Geophysical Union conference in Washington, D.C. One of the reasons given by a spokesperson for the union was visa delays.
The officials at the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C. are also apparently aware of the increased number of Chinese nationals unable to secure U.S. visas.
For now, the political tensions between the U.S. and China will likely continue affecting scientific collaborations between the two countries. The scientific community in the U.S. will also probably be under greater scrutiny for the possibility of illegal collusions between Americans and Chinese scientists.
We can only wait and see what happens next.