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The Journal Gazette

Tuesday, August 20, 2019 1:00 am

Politics over science

Research suffers as trade war bleeds over

Christer Watson

The U.S.-China trade war seems to be never-ending. Not reaching the daily headlines, however, are the several ways this war is seeping into science.

For the past year, student visas for prospective Chinese graduate students have had new restrictions. Students wishing to study some specific topics only receive a one-year visa. Students can request renewals, of course. Without a guarantee, however, students have to assume those renewals might be rejected for any reason.

A typical doctorate takes between five and seven years to complete. If a student visa renewal is rejected in that time, the student's project would likely be over. The risk to each student, and their adviser, is basically impossible to estimate. Scientific discovery is uncertain enough that to add this uncertainty seems cruel.

This restriction only affects students studying aviation, robotics and advanced manufacturing. These subjects seem pretty arbitrary. I personally think they read like a politician's, or their staff's, idea of which technologies might be important in the future. Needless to say, I am generally unimpressed with the ability of a typical politician to predict technology's progress.

On a second front, the National Institutes of Health has recently been targeting Chinese scientists working in the United States.

A little background to understand this story: It is common for a scientist's salary to come from multiple sources. My graduate school adviser, for example, was supported by several different grants from NASA and the National Science Foundation (in addition to the University of Wisconsin). Each grant funds a specific project.

An elite scientist will typically work on several projects simultaneously. Since each project can take a couple of years, a person will balance the timing so they will be simultaneously involved in projects that are starting, in the middle and ending.

China has had a government policy of supporting many Chinese scientists as they work in the United States. The most recent, well-known program is called the Thousand Talents Program. One goal was to develop a stronger domestic scientific community by supporting people who may return home later in life.

As an aside, this connection is good for people in the United States. When Chinese scientists work here, then return to China, they take more than just scientific knowledge home. They take a deep exposure to many of the healthy values of our society. These connections make China better and more closely connected in values to our society. I suspect these connections, through a shared set of values, make world conflict less likely.

The recent NIH action is a change in how strictly the agency enforces transparency rules. After a series of investigations and notifications from the NIH to several universities, several Chinese and Chinese-American scientists have been fired. The justifications appear to be some combination of the scientists not revealing their funding appropriately or claiming to be doing the same work on two different grants. The details, for privacy reasons, are not clear.

These rules were not enforced for years. To start enforcing them and immediately using termination is unjust. It feels more based in the politics of the moment than the details of any infractions by the scientists. It also serves no useful purpose aside from scaring scientists away from Chinese collaborations.

The NIH and immigration policies do not represent scientific leadership. When U.S. institutions lead projects that involve scientists from other countries, ideas, people and money have to cross borders. If politicians decide they should micromanage those collaborations, the collaborations will die.

And if that becomes common, we will suffer. Just because the United States leads in many scientific areas doesn't mean we have all the good ideas. U.S. science benefits from continually bringing in ideas from other countries.

China, for example, has been heavily funding new agriculture technologies. They are potentially the leaders in using a new gene-editing tool, CRISPR, on common crops such as rice and wheat. The hope is that by precisely inserting new genes into these crops, scientists can design them to be more resilient or nutritious.

Maybe this approach is a good choice. Maybe not. If it works out, however, U.S. farmers and consumers should benefit from that success. U.S. scientists should also be able to build on that success. Having unnecessary barriers, however, makes that less likely.


Christer Watson, of Fort Wayne, is a professor of physics at Manchester University. Opinions expressed are his own. He wrote this column for The Journal Gazette, where his columns normally appear the first and third Tuesday of each month.