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Repair the damage done by DOJ wrongly targeting Chinese scientists

The Hill logo The Hill 6/29/2022 Steven A. Kivelson and Peter F. Michelson, opinion contributors
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The Department of Justice’s “China Initiative” — now formally canceled – was a wrong-headed response to a real issue. To begin repairing the damage done, the United States government and U.S. research universities should actively promote open scientific collaboration with scientists and students in and from China, and from around the world. This is essential not only to justify our self-image as the land of opportunity, but also because U.S. international leadership in science and technology relies on these talented immigrants.

The initiative ostensibly aimed to protect U.S. businesses and laboratories from intellectual property theft and economic espionage, but it was heavily criticized for possible racial profiling and anti-Asian and Chinese bias.

Theft of information essential to our national security is very much on the minds of U.S. legislators and the executive branch. Some countries — China and Russia being examples — do not adhere to the codes of conduct that we espouse. (As an aside, one can wonder whether our country is as deferential to the dictates of international law as we should be.) But an effective response to this challenge is not to curtail scientific exchanges between the United States and the rest of world — most especially not between the U.S. and China.

The vast majority of scientists — especially those in academia engaged in fundamental research — are much alike, around the world, in their dedicated pursuit of new knowledge. The results of research carried out by academic scientists are disseminated in openly published papers. A university-based scientist garners prestige and advancement by publishing in high-impact journals. Publications are increasingly internationally co-authored, with scientists in China now the largest group of international collaborators working with U.S. scientists. Indeed, it is forbidden by most U.S. universities for faculty to engage in classified research on campus. Even proprietary research is highly constrained and relatively rare. Important national or industrial secrets cannot be stolen by foreign agents infiltrating U.S. universities for the simple reason that such secrets are, by design, not to be found there.

Great universities, both here and abroad, produce highly trained science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates. The positive impact of scientists and engineers on the well-being of our country is well established. We have led the world for decades in the creativity and effectiveness of our scientific and engineering enterprises, powered not only by our home-grown workforce, but also by our ability to attract the most talented graduates of premier universities from around the world.


Video: 1/6 panel hears of Trump's pressure on DOJ (USA TODAY)

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Our World War II victory and success in the Cold War that followed, were significantly assisted by the brilliant scientific establishment that we inherited — almost overnight — from the German diaspora fleeing nascent Nazi Germany to positions in universities and government laboratories in the United States. The paranoid attacks carried out by Nazi authorities on their own citizens was not only one of the most reprehensible aspects of their regime, but it was also incredibly self-destructive. It drove multitudes of brilliant people into the welcoming arms of their enemies.

Our science and engineering strength has relied on immigrants from around the world, but particularly from China, India and several other countries. China has been the principal source of international students enrolled in the U.S. higher education system; in recent years its nationals have received the second largest number of employer-sponsored H-1B temporary visas, after India. Welcoming these immigrants to our universities and industries is not only the principled thing to do to uphold our country’s best traditions but also, from a practical perspective, it is essential to the future of our nation. Immigrants constitute 45 percent of the U.S. STEM workforce with Ph.D. degrees.

Some foreign students who study at our universities may choose to return to their home countries. However, even if those countries may be our adversaries in certain realms of international competition, it is still in our best interest to welcome these students. The serious problems facing our country sometimes makes us lose sight of the great virtues inherent within our system. But these virtues are not lost on students who spend time at our great universities. They return home with considerable admiration for the dynamism and inclusiveness of our society and our democracy. In a small but tangible way, this brings salutary pressure to otherwise inward-looking institutions to participate openly in the international community.

On a personal level, we have experienced the lingering negative effects of the China Initiative within our immediate community. The contributions of brilliant colleagues of Chinese origin in both teaching and research are an important element of what makes our home, Stanford University, so renowned. Distressingly, many of these colleagues have recently begun to feel unwelcomed in our country. For many years, we have read applications to the graduate class in our department from astounding young Chinese scholars who are notable not only for their educational achievements, but also for their idealism. Sadly, we have noticed a precipitous decline in these applications in the last couple of years. We attribute this, at least in part, to the chilling effect of the China Initiative.

What is needed is a new initiative. We should expand collaboration, particularly academic exchanges and research collaborations, between the United States and China. Interactions among scientists at higher education institutions not only directly benefit the U.S. but are also important channels for informal dialogues. If the United States is to remain a global leader in science and technological innovation, it is of paramount importance to recognize that leadership can only be maintained by encouraging open exchanges and collaborations.

Steven A. Kivelson is the Prabhu Goel Family professor in the Department of Physics at Stanford University. He is a co-editor in chief of Nature Partner Journal Quantum Materials, published by Springer Nature in partnership with Nanjing University

Peter F. Michelson is the Luke Blossom professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences in the Department of Physics at Stanford University and currently also serving as senior associate dean for the natural sciences. He leads a 15-year international collaboration of more than 150 scientists, as well as international student contributors, who designed and built the Large Area Telescope on the NASA Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, and its resulting data is in the public domain.

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