Op-Ed: Slipping through the cracks: government-sanctioned xenophobia

Saturday, June 20, 2020 - 1:03am

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The SECURE CAMPUS Act (H.R.7033) was introduced to the House of Representatives on May 27 by Rep. David Kustoff, R-Tenn., and subsequently to the Senate (S.3920) on June 9 by Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and cosponsored by Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. This bill seeks to prohibit all Chinese nationals from obtaining visas to the United States to pursue graduate and post-graduate studies in science, technology, engineering and math fields. The bill would additionally curtail the Thousand Talents Program, a Chinese foreign recruitment program that offers grants for overseas scientists to pursue research at Chinese universities. As future physician-scientists and students at the University of Michigan Medical School, we write to express our dismay and opposition to this bill. We believe that it illustrates, at best, a misunderstanding of scientific collaboration and, at worst, a deliberate xenophobic motion that is loosely cloaked in protecting national security interests. 

Kustoff stated that, “Student visas should be only for those who want to contribute to our research institutions and advance our national interests,” citing that "China's Communist Party has been exploiting our universities to spy and steal our technology for far too long.” This announcement came amidst rising anti-Asian hate crimes fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as several high-profile arrests of researchers at American universities. Most recently, Simon Saw-Teong Ang, University of Arkansas professor, was arrested on a charge of wire fraud due to failing to disclose close ties with the Chinese government to receive NASA grant funding. Additionally, in January, Harvard University chemist Dr. Charles Lieber was arrested in connection with the Thousand Talents Program for failing to disclose his research funding to both the U.S. government and Harvard. These incidents present a legitimate concern. We do not discount the need to bolster greater oversight and investigation to enforce appropriate funding disclosures and strengthen awareness of Chinese scientific-military ties. However, the SECURE CAMPUS Act generalizes the behavior of a few to an entire nation, a misguided action that smacks of xenophobia and racism while undermining global collaborative science. 

The legislators’ description of this bill illustrates a flaw in their understanding of academic research. At its core, academic research is a collaborative global effort, not an arms race between rival nations. Through transparent and broad dissemination of methods and results via peer-reviewed biomedical publications, scientific advancement is significantly hastened. In 2015, physicist Xi Xaoxing of Temple University was arrested and accused of sharing “sensitive technology” with Chinese collaborators — but the information in question was already publicly available. “Academic espionage is a contradiction,” Xi said. “There’s nothing to steal, you can just sit there and read your paper.” Published biomedical research exists in the public domain, where it is freely shared and belongs to the global scientific community.

Cotton, Blackburn and Kustoff are deliberately stoking these fears to gain support for their xenophobic legislation. This bill will not only undermine U.S.-China relations and hinder scientific progress, but will also harm our global society and those who depend on researchers of all nationalities to develop cures for diseases, novel pathways for drug delivery and countless other meaningful and often life-saving contributions. Scientific discovery is an iterative process, where each subsequent advancement builds on the hundreds of steps taken by prior investigators, regardless of their nationality, race or ethnicity.

As medical students, we learn that all science is borne out of collaborative efforts across institutions and borders. One of us, a former biophysics major, drew on research from a university laboratory in China to complete computational work in enzyme modeling. The cross-pollination of ideas, via methods and datasets published in academic journals, fostered an informal collaboration between the Brooks Lab at the University of Michigan and the Rao Lab at Tsinghua University. This would not have been possible without the ethos of transparent collaboration that is foundational to scientific research as we know it. Another of us spent one summer in a stem cell research laboratory at New York Medical College, learning to culture cells and monitor protein expression under the guidance of a Chinese principal investigator, who was trained in America. The University of Michigan is a conglomeration of nationalities and skills: 36 percent of Ph.D. students in 2019 were international students and 55 percent of postdoctoral researchers in the life sciences are international, from 2017 data. The great work that has been accomplished on our campus and allows us to continue to attract the brightest researchers is dependent on the contributions of Wolverines from across the world. To place a sweeping, arbitrary ban on one nationality is both amoral and harmful to our future research efforts. 

In summary, the detrimental effects of this bill would manifest in four distinct ways: by jeopardizing the futures of promising Chinese scientists and researchers, adversely affecting the American research enterprise and university economics, misleading the American public on the true value of academic research and setting a dangerous precedent for similar legislation against other countries. To prevent this bill from being enacted into law and to ensure the continued support of a robust global scientific community, we urge our campus community to take the following steps: Call your elected officials and urge them to vote in opposition of H.R.7033/S.3920; raise awareness of the negative impact this bill will undoubtedly have on our global scientific and research communities by sharing this op-ed and others on social media; sign this petition and urge U-M leadership to make formal statements in opposition to H.R.7033/S.3920 and to denounce xenophobia; email and call your university’s international centers and academic departments and encourage them to make statements in opposition to H.R.7033/S.3920 and to denounce xenophobia. 

Alexandra Highet, B.A., is a fourth-year medical student, Itai Palmon, B.S., is an incoming first-year medical student, Amalia Gomez-Rexrode, B.S., is a first-year medical student, Devon Cassidy, B.S., is a first-year medical student and they can be reached at ahighet@med.umich.edu, ipalmon@med.umich.edu, amaliagr@med.umich.edu and cdevon@med.umich.edu, respectively. Additionally, Meredith Barrett, MD, is a Clinical Lecturer, Section of Transplantation Surgery, Department of Surgery, Michigan Medicine and Christopher Sonnenday MD MHSA is a Professor, Section of Transplantation Surgery, Department of Surgery, Michigan Medicine and can be reached at mebarrett@med.umich.edu and csonnend@med.umich.edu, respectively.