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Former NIH chief defends dismissed Chinese scientists

By Kong Wenzheng in New York | China Daily | Updated: 2019-07-08 09:12

A leading US biomedical scientist on Friday questioned some top US research institutions' recent practices of dismissing Chinese American scientists over security concerns, noting their contributions to the scientific and economic success of the United States.

Elias Zerhouni, a former director of the National Institutes of Health, wrote in an editorial published in the July 5 issue of Science magazine that there is "consternation, sense of targeted discrimination, and fear" within the Chinese American scientific community, and urged the administration to find explicit ways to reassure such community.

While the US policymakers had long been supporting scientific exchanges and collaborations with China, as Zerhouni recognized in the article, Chinese Scientists and Security, in recent months the tensions between the two countries have seemingly cast a shadow over such exchanges in fields including but not limited to biomedical science.

Last year, NIH launched investigations in answer to federal officials' increasing concerns over exploitation of US-funded research by foreign countries, particularly China.

Such efforts have resulted in three senior researchers ousted in April by the renowned Houston-based cancer research facility MD Anderson Cancer Center, due to the researchers' ties with China.

A month later, Emory University fired a neuroscience research team headed by a Chinese couple, Li Xiaojiang and Li Shihua, who allegedly failed to disclose China-related funding.

The FBI has also reportedly urged US universities to develop protocols monitoring some of their Chinese students and scholars from Chinese state-affiliated research institutions, according to National Public Radio.

Zerhouni said that many "rules" about disclosing foreign funding, now presented and enforced "as severe violations of US ethics and intellectual property regulations" were previously not rigorously implemented by many US institutions.

The US has overall benefited from the contributions of foreign scientists, according to Zerhouni.

The US "relies heavily on attracting the best and brightest in the world to its ecosystem of innovation" considering the size and intensity of its economy and its insufficient number of graduates from the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, he wrote.

Heads from some leading US universities share such recognition.

L. Rafael Reif, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, described the Chinese and Chinese American researchers as "exemplary members of our community but exceptional contributors to American society" in an open letter sent campuswide titled Immigration Is a Kind of Oxygen.

Students, scholars and faculty members from around the world make significant contributions to Yale's research and educational endeavors, the school's president Peter Salovey stressed in an open letter sent in May, where he also recognized the "increased scrutiny of academic exchanges" and the unease among international students and scholars.

Both presidents noted in their letters the significance of the security concerns, as did Zerhouni, who described the security and protection of the country's science and technology as "of paramount importance".

In May, a bipartisan bill, Securing American Science and Technology Act, was introduced in the US House of Representatives aiming at encouraging discussions on science and security and creating a group in the executive branch to tackle such issues.

Calling the bill "a good step forward", Zerhouni encouraged the administration to also develop ways of preserving the country's attractiveness to foreign-born scientists, most particularly those from China.

He questioned in the article if it would be in the national interest to risk "losing all or some of the extraordinarily productive" Chinese American scientists trained and supported for years in the US.

"The United States should not risk losing critical intellectual assets such as productive foreign-born scientists and engineers" to serve short-term security concerns at the expense of long-term national interests, said Zerhouni.

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