I often write articles based on stories from Science Daily that appear in my news feed. Over the past few years, as terrified white Americans have ratcheted up their loathing of black people, brown people, Mexicans, Hispanics, Muslims, Sikhs, Arabs, Hindus, Indians, Pakistanis, Syrians and anyone else whose ancestors did not come to America on the Mayflower (or in steerage aboard a Cunard ocean line as my ancestors did), I have been struck by the number of researchers whose names suggest they are of Asian descent, many of them Chinese.
How is the escalating racism and anti-immigrant bias in America impacting their lives, I wondered. And what would happen to basic research in America if they all decided to leave Miss Liberty’s embrace and decamp to countries where they were welcomed instead of vilified?
Fear & Loathing In Washington
It appears my concerns were justified. In a story dated June 13, Bloomberg Businessweek published a story with this headline: The U.S. Is Purging Chinese Cancer Researchers From Top Institutions: The NIH and the FBI are targeting ethnic Chinese scientists, including U.S. citizens, searching for a cancer cure.
The story goes on to reveal what happened to one cancer researcher, Xifeng Wu, who is a naturalized US citizen. Wu worked for 27 years at the University of Texas MD Anderson and had risen to become director of the Center for Public Health and Translational Genomics.
But one day in November, 2017, the FBI paid a visit to the cancer center’s new president, Peter Pisters, who had been in his position for less than a month. They left with written authorization from Pisters to search the computer accounts of 23 M Anderson employees “for any purpose … at any time, for any length of time, and at any location.”
“Because MD Anderson was cooperating with the FBI’s national security investigation, and because the FBI had the power to issue another subpoena, we chose to voluntarily provide the requested emails,” Brette Peyton, a spokesperson for MD Anderson told Bloomberg. What she didn’t mention is that MD Anderson is the recipient of almost $200 million a year in National Institute of Health research grants and was petrified of losing a significant source of its revenue stream.
The Yellow Peril
FBI director Christopher Wray makes no secret of his agency’s targeting of Chinese researchers. In April, he told the Council on Foreign Relations, “China has pioneered a societal approach to stealing innovation in any way it can from a wide array of businesses, universities, and organizations.”
The whole Chinese nation is on it the scam, he suggested — China’s intelligence services its state-owned “ostensibly” private enterprises, and the 130,000 Chinese graduate students and researchers who work and study in the US every year. “Put plainly, China seems determined to steal its way up the economic ladder at our expense,” he said, faithfully parroting the words of his boss.
This sort of reckless rhetoric is precisely the sort of inflammatory speech that permeated the United States during the Cold War when Russia was America’s arch enemy. It also fueled the Red Menace scare that let to the rise of Joseph McCarthy — the paranoid junior senator from Wisconsin, the Hollywood blacklist, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, and the internment of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor.
Words have consequences, and Wray’s words are a direct affront to every American. He might as well emulate Tail Gunner Joe himself and strut around Washington waving pieces of paper while looking into the cameras and intoning, “I have here a list of Chinese Americans…..” If you don’t get that reference, check out this YouTube to see exactly what I mean.
International Cooperation Is The Norm
During her time at MD Anderson, Wu developed close ties with researchers and cancer centers in China. “She was encouraged to do so by MD Anderson,” Bloomberg reports. “The center’s president in the early 2000s, John Mendelsohn, launched an initiative to promote international collaborations.”
“In China, MD Anderson forged “sister” relationships with five major cancer centers, cooperating on screening programs, clinical trials, and basic research studies. Dozens of ethnic Chinese faculty members at MD Anderson participated, eager to visit family and friends and contribute their expertise to addressing China’s enormous burden of about 4.3 million new cancer cases a year. In 2015, China awarded MD Anderson its top honor for international scientific cooperation, in a ceremony attended by President Xi Jinping.”
Wu attended Chinese medical conferences, hosted visiting Chinese professors in Houston, and published 87 research papers with co-authors from 26 Chinese institutions, says Bloomberg. In all, she co-authored 540 scholarly papers that have been cited more than 23,000 times in scientific literature.
“MD Anderson was very much an open door. The mission was ‘End cancer in Texas, America, and the world,’ ” says Oliver Bogler, the cancer center’s senior vice president for academic affairs from 2011 to 2018. He is now the chief operating officer of the ECHO Institute at the University of New Mexico.
The globalization of science, in particular basic science, has been sweeping. “Faculty don’t see international borders anymore,” says Adam Kuspa, dean of research at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “If someone in another country has a piece of the puzzle, they want to work with them.” Relationships often begin at academic conferences, jell during invited visits for symposiums or lectureships, and culminate in the melding of research into scientific papers.
“Wu’s work, like a lot of the academic research now in danger of being stifled, isn’t about developing patentable drugs,” Bloomberg says. “The mission is to reduce risk and save lives by discovering the causes of cancer. Prevention isn’t a product. It isn’t sellable. Or stealable.” (Emphasis added.)
Fear The Chinese
The FBI is telling companies, universities, hospitals — anyone with intellectual property at stake — to take special precautions when dealing with Chinese business partners and employees who might be what Wray calls “nontraditional” information collectors, according to the Bloomberg report.
US Department of Justice officials are going on the road to brief local governments, companies, and journalists about China’s penchant for stealing intellectual property. Visas for Chinese students and researchers are being curtailed, and more Chinese engineers and business people, especially in the tech sector, are being detained at US airports while border agents inspect and image their digital devices. The FBI is pursuing economic espionage investigations “that almost invariably lead back to China” in almost every one of its 56 field offices, FBI director Wray says.
Whispers & Insinuations
What improprieties did Wu commit? According to MD Anderson compliance officer Max Weber, she failed to disclose certain contacts she had with people in China and allowed research assistants to view confidential information. According to Bloomberg, her attorney advised her not to meet with Weber. Instead she agreed to answer written questions and that’s what cooked her goose.
Weber concluded she was recalcitrant and hostile and decided to draw every negative inference possible against her. “If you searched through MD Anderson or any large research institution, you’d find people with these kinds of compliance issues everywhere,” says Lynn Goldman, dean of the Milken School of Public Health at George Washington University. Assisting senior scientists with confidential grant reviews, a rite of passage for many younger researchers, is considered “part of the mentoring process” by older faculty members, Goldman says. “Is it wrong? Probably. Is it a capital offense? Hardly.”
The FBI surprised one anonymous person by appearing unannounced at his back door one day to ask him about joint research projects he was involved in with people in China. He tried to explain that there are no secrets in basic science because everything gets published.
During the course of two hours, the agents were less focused on national security issues than on they were in assessing his loyalty to the United States. According to Bloomberg, they wanted to know, in essence, whether he was now or ever had been more committed to curing cancer in China than in the US? The absurdity of such an inquiry is monumental.
Disproportionate Prosecution Of Chinese People
The FBI also seems to have had it in for persons of Chinese descent recently. Bloomberg reports that from 1997 to 2009, 17% of defendants indicted under the U.S Economic Espionage Act had Chinese names. From 2009 to 2015, that rate tripled to 52%, according to a December 2018 article in the Cardozo Law Review.
One in five of the Chinese-named defendants was never found guilty of espionage or any other serious crime in the cases between 1997 and 2015. That is almost twice the rate of wrongful accusations made against non-Chinese defendants. According to Andrew Kim, a visiting scholar at South Texas College of Law at Houston, this statistical anomaly reflects an apparent bias by federal agents and prosecutors who assume ethnic Chinese scientists must be secretly working for China. Joe McCarthy, is that you?
“In the same way racial profiling of African Americans as criminals may create the crime of ‘driving while black,’ ” writes Kim, “profiling of Asian Americans as spies … may be creating a new crime: ‘researching while Asian.’ ”
Until now, cooperation has taken place between researchers around the world. Not any more. China has officially been designated a dangerous nation, one that seeks to steal information vital to US national interests. “Even something that is in the fundamental research space, that’s absolutely not classified, has an intrinsic value,” says Lawrence Tabak, principal deputy director of the NIH, “This pre-patented material is the antecedent to creating intellectual property. In essence, what you’re doing is stealing other people’s ideas.”
Wu resigned from MD Anderson in January and accepted a position at a school of public health in Shanghai. To her friends and colleagues, what happened to Wu was bureaucratic overkill. There was no evidence, and no accusation, that she’d given China any proprietary information, whatever that term might mean in cancer epidemiology.
She should have been given the chance to correct her disclosures without punishment, her supporters say. “Innocent yet meaningful scientific collaborations have been portrayed as somehow corrupt and detrimental to American interests. Nothing could be further from the truth,” says Randy Legerski, a retired vice chair of MD Anderson’s genetics department and former chair of its faculty senate. Adds Goldman of George Washington: “The only thing we’ve lost to China is our investment in Xifeng Wu.”
Shooting Ourselves In The Foot
That and any shred of pride in America, thanks to the xenophobic and maniacal ravings of the lunatic in chief. America has closed its doors to one of the premier cancer researchers of this or any other age. And if you think the same thing isn’t happening to Chinese scientists and researchers in other fields of endeavor such as environmental research and the quest for better EV batteries, you simply aren’t paying attention.
Led by its intellectually impaired and emotionally immature leader, America has no chance of becoming great again. In fact, it is on the path to becoming a genuine #Shithole Country, a pariah among nations. Is that what Americans want? You get to answer that question in November of 2020.