The Chinese Dilemma Revisited


Leonard Zwelling

Two articles in the July 5 issue of Science Magazine go a long way toward explaining the quandary that American academia is in with regard to the competing forces of the need for foreign graduate students, post-docs, and faculty, including people from China, and the need to secure American scientific discoveries for domestic commercialization and protect our intellectual property.

The first article outlines the need for this balance. It is called “Chinese scientists and security” and is written by former NIH Director Elias Zerhouni. The article articulates the dilemma. How do we keep the flow of necessary offshore talent coming from countries such as China while preserving the integrity of our own intellectual property? That is the problem. There can be no doubt that the PRC government is encouraging the recruitment of American-trained scientists of Chinese origin back to China. The Thousand Talents Program is actively recruiting these people to the Mainland. This is a recent change from the time when cultural exchanges were encouraged and China was not viewed as a threat to American security. Those days are gone and for apparently good reasons. The Chinese government probably is using its power over its own citizens who train in the United States to try to extract scientific information from the trainees for the benefit of China and the detriment of the U.S.

As this blog has written before, it is only through absolute transparency as to what these visitors (and some naturalized citizens) may have done wrong, that the rest of the community will be convinced that this is not a witch hunt.

The second article goes a long way toward remedying that situation.

Jeffrey Mervis reports in “Details revealed on NIH probe of foreign ties” the real reasons some of the faculty members of academic institutions in the United States with ties to China were dismissed. The article describes the contents of a conversation between Science and Michael Lauer, the Director of the NIH extramural funding program.

Here are the highlights:

1. An MD Anderson reviewer for an NIH study section shared the contents of what he was charged with keeping confidential. This was the first of other similar violations.
2. It was the NIH program staff that found the examples of affiliations of grantees with foreign, particularly Chinese, institutions in their papers without having reported the affiliations to their home institutions or to the NIH.
3. Many ethnically Chinese investigators with these affiliations hold multiple NIH grants.
4. The American universities where these people work doubted the findings of the NIH staff. They no longer do.
5. Scientists were double dipping salary support attributing 8 months per year in America and 9 in China. This, as Lauer points out, is fraud.
6. Some of those in the Thousands Talents Program committed to keeping their research results in China only.

What these two articles seem to be conveying—finally—is what went wrong, what people did that was wrong, and why they were penalized so severely.

Now if only the institutions from which these Chinese scientists have been dismissed had been as forthcoming as the NIH, perhaps everybody could calm down and get back to work knowing what is permitted and what is not.

What a concept!

Leonard Zwelling