Pay US scientists more to resist Chinese offers, says Republican

Salary boost might be more effective than legal crackdowns in thwarting international recruiting and funding approaches, argues Oklahoma representative

April 13, 2021
Two Chinese men in front of a billboard advertisement for a burger
Source: Getty

A top congressional Republican has suggested that improving the pay of US academic scientists might be more helpful than federal crackdowns in reducing research collaborations involving international rivals such as China.

Frank Lucas, the lead Republican on the House Science Committee, has suggested that low salaries might be a factor in the big-picture problem of researchers hiding their Chinese ties.

“If they were properly rewarded, would there be an incentive to engage in this kind of activity?” Mr Lucas said of US scientists. “I just think that’s something we have to look at.”

Mr Lucas is going beyond just throwing around his ideas – he is the chief author of a bill known as Salsta (the Securing American Leadership in Science and Technology Act) that would double basic research spending by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and other agencies.

And while that bill would not directly raise individual salaries, Mr Lucas also called for tallying of the financial gains from academic science and getting more of it into the hands of the discoverers.

The questions to address, he told Times Higher Education, were: “How do we reward the scientific community for their work? Do they benefit, both in academia and in industry, from the things they create, the concepts they develop?”

The pitch comes 40 years after Congress, through the Bayh-Dole Act, gave universities the broad right to profit from their inventions even when using federal funding.

The law has been widely celebrated since then as a major driver of economic growth. And while Bayh-Dole puts control in the hands of universities, many do let their scientists develop and profit from their discoveries.

Mr Lucas nevertheless proposed examining the “long-term question about scientific research: who owns it, how’s it used, what interest does the university have and what interest does the professor have?”

He spoke after four years of concerted Trump administration efforts, largely backed by Republicans, to penalise US-based academic scientists suspected of not fully disclosing ties to foreign partners, especially those involving China.

A leading concern for the Trump administration, Mr Lucas and other lawmakers has been the Thousand Talents Programme, through which China is trying to recruit scientists from abroad or otherwise convince them to aid its companies and universities. Joe Biden has put less public focus on Chinese foreign talent recruitment efforts, although he has made clear that he considers China to be a leading security concern.

Mr Lucas said he would not second-guess the arrests by federal authorities of prominent professors, such as Charles Lieber of Harvard University and Gang Chen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, both of whom have pleaded innocent. But he cited such cases as among those where higher pay might have made a difference.

He acknowledged an uphill battle for his own funding initiative and for others − including a 10-year, $2.3 trillion (£1.7 trillion) infrastructure plan by Mr Biden that includes $250 billion in new research spending.

It’s tough, he said, “getting my colleagues on the Republican side to be willing to spend money on anybody for any reason or any activity”.

He also faces a sceptical reception among many of his constituents back in Oklahoma, a largely rural expanse of oil and gas wells where voters backed Donald Trump by a 2:1 margin and sometimes wonder aloud to Mr Lucas if he was sufficiently infused with that allegiance.

Mr Lucas described his frustration at community meetings where voters can struggle with such topics as artificial intelligence and cybersecurity. But he also saw electricity-generating windmills sprouting amid the oil rigs that dot Oklahoma’s open plains, and he tries to encourage the embrace of advances in battery technology and nuclear fusion by warning Oklahomans that they dare not risk letting China dominate new-generation energy.

His call for better pay for scientists was also aimed at persuading US youth, who may question if research careers are worth the educational investment. “It’s hard work,” he said, “but you’ve got to make sure that the young minds in our country understand that the opportunity is there, and what the potential rewards are for their hard work.”

It’s a difficult message in a nation where “we all carry smartphones, we all want immediate answers, we all want immediate gratification − we don’t have patience any more”, the congressman said.

Mr Lucas saw a possible path forward among his fellow Republicans by delivering a security-centred warning that China can be countered only by outcompeting it in research.

“I still believe we have a responsibility, and a possibility, of doing big, bold things,” he said.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: ‘Beat’ Chinese bids by pay hike

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