Scientists of Chinese descent leaving the US at an accelerating pace

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Even before the US government announced plans to crack down on perceived espionage by China in 2018, scientists of Chinese descent were leaving the US. Since then the numbers leaving have only accelerated as both junior and experienced faculty depart, according to a new analysis.

The work reveals that nearly 20,000 scientists of Chinese descent who began their careers in the US have left for other countries, including China, between 2010 and 2021, a team at Princeton, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has found. ‘The migration has increased during those 12 years, from 900 scientists in 2010 to 2621 in 2021, with an accelerated departure rate (75% higher) in the last three years … coinciding with the launch of the China Initiative in 2018,’ the authors wrote in the supplementary material.

Launched during the Trump administration to curb Chinese state-backed espionage and efforts aimed at stealing US intellectual property, the China Initiative was terminated in February of last year following criticism that it was tantamount to racial profiling and damaging to the US’s scientific enterprise. The cancellation of the US Department of Justice (DOJ) programme came after many of the criminal cases the US government brought against academic researchers under the initiative were dismissed.

Survey reveals widespread fear

Among the scientists of Chinese descent who left the US in 2010, 48% moved to China, and 52% relocated to other countries. However, the percentage of those researchers returning to China has been continuing to grow, especially in the past few years. The analysis shows that in 2021 the proportion of scientists of Chinese descent who left the US for China increased to two-thirds. The most significant exodus has been in the life sciences, with over 1000 departing in 2021. For maths and the physical sciences, the figure was around 900.

The team also conducted a survey in 2021–2022 of nearly 1400 Chinese Americans in tenured or tenure-track positions at US universities that revealed that 35% of them feel unwelcome, and 72% do not feel safe.

Furthermore, 42% are fearful of conducting research in the US, 65% are worried about pursuing collaborations with China and 86% perceive that it is harder to recruit top international students now compared with five years ago. Of the survey respondents who have obtained US federal grants 45% say that they will avoid applying for such awards for fear of making mistakes in the application process that could lead to them being investigated.

‘These findings reveal that the widespread fear of conducting routine research and academic activities among scientists of Chinese descent, and the significant risks of losing talent culminated in hesitancy to remain in the US and contributing to federal sponsored research in science and technology,’ says study co-author Xihong Lin, a biostatistician at Harvard University. ‘Addressing the fears of scientists of Chinese origin and making the academic environment welcoming and attractive for all will help retain and attract scientific talent and strengthen the US leadership in science and technology in the long run.’

Xiaoxing Xi, a Temple University physics professor who was arrested in 2015 and charged with spying but was later vindicated when the US government dropped its case against him, is not surprised by the new findings. He does, however, call it ‘a very important’ piece of analysis.

‘There are a lot of things that we know anecdotally – that people are scared, and many of them left the US for other places – but this report puts concrete numbers to it,’ he tells Crumpe. ‘It’s very important for us to know the effect that this fear factor is having inside of the academic community.’

Fifteen to one

Xi understands this fear. Before his arrest, he chaired Temple University physics department and had 15 people in his group working on nine federal research projects. Now he has one project that just one person is helping him with. ‘I saw what the government can do – they can twist something that is nothing into a reason to falsely charged me,’ Xi says.

In their paper, the researchers also point to figures indicating there has been a disproportionate drop in applications for US National Science Foundation grants by Asian American scientists. The application rate at the agency fell 17% between 2011 and 2020, compared with 28% for those submitted by Asian American researchers.

Xi notes that writing grant proposals and managing research awards is now very stressful because of anxiety that any small oversight or administrative mistake could lead to an arrest or legal battle. He recalls a recent family trip to China where he met with several researchers who used to work in the US, some of whom were prosecuted by the US government and lost their jobs, and says they are now pursuing productive research careers in China.

‘What the DOJ has done is to precisely damage the US innovation ecosystem, by driving away this talent and scaring away people who would have come to this country,’ Xi states.

Lukas Fiala, China foresight project coordinator at the London School of Economics’ policy think tank Ideas, is also concerned. ‘The numbers illustrate the difficult balancing act in protecting intellectual property and limiting technology transfers in sensitive areas while creating an environment that encourages scientific exchange for collective advancement in areas of research where this should be possible,’ he says. ‘It is paramount to establish clear guardrails for scientific cooperation with Chinese institutions, as well as to reassure researchers of Asian and/or Chinese descent in the US of their central role in the US S&T research and development ecosystem to prevent discrimination.’

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