Study Finds 1/3 Scientists of Chinese Descent in U.S. Feel Unwelcome

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One-third of scientists of Chinese descent feel unwelcome in the United States, and many live in fear of conducting normal academic activities in the country, a newly published study has found.

The study was published in the July 4 issue of the peer-reviewed multidisciplinary journal of the National Academy of Sciences to discover the impact caused by the now-defunct program “China Initiative.”

A group of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Princeton University and Harvard University surveyed 1,304 academics of Chinese origin across the country between December 2021 and March 2022.

The national academic climate survey report, titled “Caught in the crossfire: Fears of Chinese-American scientists,” revealed the widespread fear experienced by scientists of Chinese ancestry during their routine research and academic activities.

The findings showed that 35 percent of respondents felt unwelcome, 72 percent did not feel safe as an academic researcher, 42 percent were fearful of conducting research, 65 percent were worried about collaborations with China, and a remarkable 86 percent perceived that it is harder to recruit top international students now compared to five years ago.

The research team also analyzed more than 200 million scientific papers looking for trends in scientists changing affiliations. They found a steady increase in Chinese scientists leaving U.S. institutions.

In 2021, nearly 1,500 scientists of Chinese origin left the United States. According to the analysis, they mostly worked in mathematics and physical sciences, life science, engineering and computer science.

The survey report showed a similar trend: around 61 percent of the respondents have considered leaving the United States, especially junior faculty and federal grant awardees.

The survey said another 45 percent intended to avoid federal grant applications, especially senior faculty and those in public institutions and engineering and computing science fields.

The survey found that the trend of higher incentives to leave the country and lower incentives to apply for government grants was caused by the fear of potential federal investigations since the launch of the so-called China Initiative.

The crackdown was launched in 2018 with the claimed purpose of combating economic espionage. However, many scientists pointed out that the charges against those scientists were focused on academic integrity issues instead of espionage, and the government’s efforts mostly failed due to a lack of evidence.

Under widespread criticism for racial profiling and false prosecutions, the government dropped the initiative in February 2022.

Before the program ended, the government had openly investigated about 150 scientists and prosecuted two dozen with criminal charges.

The report’s authors warned of the initiative’s lingering effect on the U.S. scientific community and “significant loss of talent.”

The report cited some scientists’ comments to elaborate on their feelings about working and living in the United States. “China initiative” and “discrimination” were often mentioned.

One respondent, self-identified as a former recipient of a prestigious award from the National Science Foundation, said he quit his academic position because of an unwelcoming atmosphere.

The report used the high-profile case against Gang Chen, a prominent scientist working at MIT, to illustrate how the initiative could damage a scientist’s career and life.

Chen was arrested on January 14, 2021, for alleged ties to China. His lab was closed, and his research group dispersed. A year later, all charges were dropped for lack of evidence.

The chilling effect of Chen’s case was significant and consequential, said the report, prompting nationwide discussions and greater awareness of the challenges facing scientists of Chinese descent.