Dozens of US universities warned about foreign scientists

National Institutes of Health asks 55 institutions to check behaviours of international researchers on campus

April 23, 2019
Person looking over fence with binoculars

The US National Institutes of Health has written to 55 universities and research institutions raising concerns about at least one of their foreign scientists, as part of a growing government crackdown on espionage and influence.

The NIH action over the past few months reflects a rise in tensions and retaliatory acts between China and the US as anxieties over trade and military competition have extended into academic exchanges.

The NIH effort since August 2018 has now led to three senior Asian researchers being expelled from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center on suspicion of having violated NIH rules concerning peer review confidentiality and disclosure of foreign ties.

The US campaign, according to China’s government-controlled Global Times newspaper, also has involved the cancellation or obstruction of US visas for at least 280 Chinese scholars since last year.

The three scientists removed from MD Anderson were among five people suggested to the institution by the NIH for investigation, according to reports by Science magazine and the Houston Chronicle.

All five are Asian and at least three are Chinese, Science and the Chronicle said. One of the five was cleared, and an investigation remained in process for the other, the publications reported.

Such investigative activity has raised concern among some US college faculty who have accused the FBI of fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of US universities as a place for the open exchange of information.

Many US university leaders, however, have publicly endorsed such investigative processes as justified given the apparent implications for national security and economic competitiveness.

MD Anderson’s president, Peter Pisters, is among them. “This is part of a much larger issue the country is facing – trying to balance an open collaborative environment and at the same time protect proprietary information and commercial interests,” Professor Pisters told the Chronicle.

China’s response has been more measured, although there are signs that it may be expanding. Earlier this month, Michael Pillsbury, a senior fellow and director of Chinese strategy at the conservative Hudson Institute and an informal Trump administration adviser on China policy, was prevented from attending an event in Beijing on China’s international relations.

Dr Pillsbury told the South China Morning Post that his visa application had not been formally rejected but had not been acted upon in time.

Students, meanwhile, appear to be voting with their feet. New data from the US government’s Student and Exchange Visitor Information System show that the two main categories of student visas showed a contraction this spring of nearly 3 per cent from the previous year. Both China and India, the two biggest providers of foreign students to the US, were among many countries recording declines.

US government officials have been warning that tougher policies would be necessary given fears that China is using all available means of exploiting the open research and development environment in the US.

The FBI director, Christopher Wray, warned a Senate hearing last year that such efforts would affect academia.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-of-government threat but a whole-of-society threat on their end,” Mr Wray said. “And I think it’s going to take a whole-of-society response by us.”

In a statement after MD Anderson’s actions, the NIH – the world’s largest public funder of biomedical research – said similar problems existed on other US campuses. “We encourage other NIH grantee institutions to learn from the MD Anderson experience,” the agency said.

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