One of my basic principles is that “Just because you can mess things up by going in one direction doesn’t mean that you can’t mess them up by doing the opposite”. And we may be proving that one again, with this example being the position of Chinese researchers in the US. I will stipulate up front that Chinese industrial espionage in the US is a real thing – some of it free-lancing by people wanting to set up their own companies, and some of it (I feel sure) encouraged by the Chinese authorities themselves. There are many examples, and I’ve written about some of them here on the blog over the years.
So if one thinks that there is no reason to worry about this sort of thing, well, that’s a mistake. But here’s another mistake: to start accusing US-based Chinese biomedical researchers in general of being spies and a security threat. This editorial (free access) from Steve Usdin in BioCentury has some of the details, especially as regard Senators John Cornyn of Texas and Charles Grassley of Iowa. Grassley, for example, was speaking directly about NIH-funded research when he alleged that there are Chinese scientists in the US whose “only purpose is to infiltrate taxpayer-funded research projects to steal intellectual property and bring it to their home country“.
What Senator Grassley may not realize is the plan that NIH-funded professors here have for that taxpayer-funded research. Guess what: they’re going to publish it in scientific journals for everyone to read. Some of it, for sure, will also end up as part of patent applications, but most of that is *also* going to be published in scientific journals for everyone to read, after the patent application has gone through. And here’s another news bulletin for the Senator: those patent applications are freely available to anyone with an internet connection, and they’re just full of information – in fact, there has to be enough disclosure and detail that (as the lawyers say) anyone of reasonable skill in the art should be able to reproduce what’s in them without undue experimentation, and definitely means people in China, too. I should finally note that this is how both academic science and the patent system are supposed to work.
So you wonder what, exactly, “infiltrating” these NIH-funded projects is going to do, other than maybe help some Chinese professor polish their CV up a bit faster. I should note that some unscrupulous US professors, over the years, have been able to do that to each other (sometimes directly off other people’s grant applications) without the need for any Chinese help. But in the end, publicly funded research is meant to be publicly disclosed – that’s the point, for others to build on it. Now, industrial research does work a bit differently: we keep things close to the vest until we write up the patent applications, and in some fields people will decide to hold their intellectual property as a trade secret rather than disclose it in a patent. But biomedical research doesn’t tend to work like that, for a number of reasons that would doubtless bore and confuse most Senators
There are, of course, direct attacks by foreign governments and companies on US data (both governmental and corporate). These have to be defended against. And there are, of course, other fields of R&D that impinge directly on national security. I have no doubt that Chinese companies and government agencies want to know about these things, in the same way that we want to know what they’re up to, and we should be taking security precautions there, too. But NIH-funded biomedical research is not generally one of those fields. My worry is that the large contingent of Chinese researchers doing that research in the US makes too tempting a political target for grandstanding politicians. We’re actually getting a great deal of benefit from having these folks here, starting with sheer manpower and going on up from there to some really very significant levels of expertise and talent.
US biomedical research is one of the country’s great strengths, and you can measure that by how people come from China, from Russia, from every European country and across Asia, Africa, and the Americas to participate in it. A lot of the action is here: the ideas, the risk-taking, the funding, the facilities, the experience. Let’s not mince words: if we decided tomorrow that this great American research enterprise should be staffed only by great Americans and start giving everyone from another country the stink-eye, it will all grind to a halt. I know that we’re not talking about throwing everyone else out; I know that we’re not even talking about just throwing all the Chinese scientists out – but if we start leaning on people doing all this research, regarding them with default settings of suspicion and mistrust, then they will start removing themselves. As who could blame them? And we will end up poorer for it. US leadership in these areas is not some sort of default position or God-given right – we can screw it up, you know.
So Senator Grassley, Senator Cornyn, all the rest of you flag-wavers: you have better, more useful, more important things to do. Right? Go do them.