How University Labs Landed on the Front Lines of the Fight With China

The email sparked panic. “Effective immediately, the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine is temporarily halting the appointment of visiting scientists,” wrote a medical-school administrator to the neurology department last fall.

Researchers who saw it felt they knew what it was really about: China. The country wasn’t named, but excerpts of the message rippled through Chinese social media, newspapers, and websites. The implications were devastating: Here was one of the most prominent medical schools in the United States, banning scientists from a crucial research partner out of a fear that they would steal ideas or — worse — that they could be spies.

Johns Hopkins administrators were dismayed for a more immediate reason. The email was inaccurate, announcing a policy that didn't exist, a spokeswoman for the medical school told The Chronicle. “The whole thing was a nightmare for us.”

But this “nightmare” did not come out of the blue. It was easy for some to believe the Hopkins email was a real policy change as tensions mounted between the two countries. Reports of sensitive information ending up in China had appeared in the news earlier in the year. Government agencies and elected officials had warned university leaders that they needed to act. An international science research partnership that had grown stronger over 40 years suddenly seemed to be decaying, and the Hopkins email felt like a natural next phase of that decay. 

“You don’t want to send the message to arguably the largest talent pool in the world … that they are a despised class in America.”

The email came in response to a call from the National Institutes of Health’s director, who warned that bad actors could exploit the open research environment and peer-review process cherished by American universities. Hopkins was reinforcing the NIH’s message, but the spokeswoman said the university had no intention of banning foreign researchers. 

Still, scholars wanted a more forceful gesture of solidarity with the Chinese researchers on campus, the spokeswoman, Audrey M. Huang, said. One academic told her that he was considering leaving Hopkins, she said. And other researchers, outside Hopkins, took the episode as further evidence that the country that had long embraced Chinese researchers might no more.

The U.S. and China have entered a new era of their complex relationship. This phase is combative and competitive — some say it’s the genesis of a new Cold War. To U.S. officials, university laboratories are on the front lines. They’re where the tools that will control the future of medicine, warfare, and the economy are being developed. The theft of that work, they say, could unfairly benefit a growing rival. In the hands of an authoritarian regime, these tools can also be used for surveillance and suppression. So some American universities are discouraging certain work in China and rejecting money from some Chinese companies — knowing that if they don’t act fast enough on their own, lawmakers will clamp down. 

But universities are in a bind. One of the tenets of American higher education is that collaboration among the best minds will yield progress in science and technology, and China is America's top collaborator in published scientific research. Campuses are loath to jeopardize that relationship, fearing the loss of talent, money, and future discoveries if walls are built up too high. There have been charges of theft, but it’s not entirely clear to college leaders how big the problem is. The uncertainty has bred mistrust and suspicion. Swaths of U.S. researchers of Chinese descent feel unfairly targeted. 

About 500 miles from Johns Hopkins, Duxin Sun saw reports of the email and the policy. With so many rumored new restrictions, it had become hard to discern what was real and what wasn’t. He thought the story sounded too extreme to be true. But in the last year, Sun, a pharmaceutical-sciences professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor who moved to the United States from China in 1994, has started to pay more attention to the political rhetoric about China. 

He fears that the very thing that attracted him to America may be at stake. 

If higher education starts to question its openness, he said, “we start our own self-destruction.”

Sun earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in pharmacy in Shanghai in the late 1980s and early 1990s, studying inflammation and cardiovascular disease. The field was big, but he connected with a Vanderbilt professor at a Montreal conference. That professor wanted a research assistant — and quickly recruited Sun.

Sun soon wanted to do more. He quit the lab and earned his Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Michigan. After a few years in industry, he was hired as an assistant professor at Ohio State University, taking a 30-percent pay cut, he said. 

He couldn’t have done his work, which focuses on cancer treatment, without collaborating with other researchers. “I stepped on their shoulders,” Sun said. “They helped me.” 

The Michigan professor’s trajectory is one that many in academe cherish. But it wouldn’t have been possible before the U.S. and China normalized scientific relations in the 1970s. In that decade, after an era of estrangement, the two nations flirted with cooperation — and then made it official.

First, an American plant physiologist and a geneticist visited China in 1971 — thought to be the first scientists to do so in decades, The New York Times reported. It was front-page news: “U.S. Biologists in China Tell of Scientific Gains,” read the headline. The following year, 11 Chinese doctors visited American hospitals, sharing news of Shanghai’s new birth-control efforts, the Times reported. 

In 1979, an agreement between President Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping, China’s vice premier, sparked larger-scale science-and-technology collaborations between agencies, universities, and individuals. 

For China, the benefit was clear: Cooperation and exchange would help its scientists catch up to innovative Western practices and strengthen the country’s economic muscle. For the U.S., the arrangement meant new opportunities to recruit top students and scholars — and the immeasurable possibilities of scientific discovery in a new place.

Over the last four decades, however, the dynamic has shifted. 

Chinese science took huge strides as the nation invested deeply in research, according to a 2014 assessment prepared on behalf of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. Meanwhile, that report found, the U.S. had less money to go around.

Facing that shortage, American universities chased foreign funding and talent. China provided. Chinese graduate students in science and engineering fueled publications. In the year ending in November 2018, the U.S. and China were each other’s top research collaborators, according to the Nature Index, which tracks natural-science collaborations in papers published in 82 top science journals.

The U.S.’s upper hand in this partnership was slipping. Its new reliance on China, however, did not come with tight, centralized oversight of the relationship. Not all American universities knew which of their professors were participating in programs hosted by Chinese universities. Some faculty members didn’t report all of their foreign research to U.S. granting agencies.

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