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Academia (vs. Industry)

Researching While Chinese

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.

48 comments on “Researching While Chinese”

  1. Barry says:

    “National origin” is an explicitly protected category in U.S. employment law exactly because of this sort of hysteria and bigotry. These purges make America less great, and these purges move America from the forefront of the intellectual world towards a backwater of irrelevance.

    1. chemist says:

      That doesn’t mean they deserve to be here in the first place. We could use a 20 year halt on pretty much all immigration, except for extraordinary cases.

      1. Don’tcallyourselfchemist says:

        Don’t forget, the US became great because of it has been absorbing the best people in the group for centuries

        1. disrepect rules says:

          Sure people say that, but I don’t buy into it. It’s the “respect” for irreverence” that the founding fathers distilled into us all, through the constitution, that makes the US what it is.

          The US, or at least it used to be, is a place where people are respected for saying the he## with the status quo, I’m going to challenge it, or I’m going to strike out on my own. This kind of attitude doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. All the “commonwealth” countries are still mired in royalty worship and it shows in the contributions they make to society, the way their citizens roll over so easily to tyranny and corruption.

      2. Anonymous says:

        That’s an embarrassingly stupid idea. A 20 year freeze? I bet you think the immigrants took your job as well. We should want people to come here. More importantly we should want them to stay. That’s how we remain a powerhouse of innovation.

        1. HydrogenBond says:

          Couldn’t agree more. My grad school PI was Chinese/Canadian. My first job was in a company founded by a professor from Iran. My current boss is a brilliant and wonderful Palestinian. I was born and raised in the USA and I’m so thankful that all of them are here. We would be a poorer, dumber, smaller country without them.

  2. Emjeff says:

    Not completely sure why you’re dumping on these guys, other than the fact that you just don’t like them. All they seem to be saying is exactly what you said in the first paragraph, Derek – why so touchy?

    1. Da Vinci says:

      Blatant racism by lawmakers isn’t a big deal? Welcome to the US in the Trump era…..

      1. Vader says:

        Wait. Saying that industrial espionage by a particular country is likely to be carried out by nationals of that country is racism, if that country is dominated by a particular race?

        Not every mistake is racism. Quit overplaying that card.

      2. Emjeff says:

        Yes, that’s right, over-react like everyone else on your side. You’re playing right into Trump’s hands with this nonsense.

      3. loupgarous says:

        Google “Wen Ho Lee”. US government racism toward foreign researchers in sensitive fields was carried further and to an even more absurd degree during the Clinton administration, to the extent that Wen Ho Lee received an apology by the Federal judge hearing his case, and the Department of Energy was roundly condemned.

        1. Handicapped by actually knowing the facts says:

          I know something about the Wen Ho Lee case, being a close friend of one of the LANL scientists who did the computer forensics on his case. Usual disclaimer: I am not speaking officially for LANL or DoE.

          Wen Ho Lee thoroughly deserved to be shot at dawn. The judge who apologized to him was a flaming idiot. Look up the term “graymail” and you’ll have a better understanding of what actually happened. Assuming you want a better understanding.

    2. Derek Lowe says:

      Read it again, is all I can say. Industrial espionage is different than suggesting that the Chinese are plotting to steal NIH-funded research.

      1. Anon says:

        When the problem hits closer to your home, then you buy it! In my area of imaging science cutting across both biology and chemistry, many I know are from the China, spread across both in academia and in industry. They review many NIH proposals. Some are real good experts and some simply referred. But, I have observed diligently that only they get funded! The worst is from academia here in the US, when they do sabbatical not anywhere in Europe or in the US, but in the mainland. You realize that later when you see collaborative papers starting to appear. Trust me I never believed that such a thing was possible in the US, until I am starting to believe it, because it is hitting closer to home! Lot of truth to it.

  3. Kiss the Chemist says:

    Emjeff – I read the same thing as you and I think Derek has it spot on. We must not allow this sort of uniformed xenophobic spewing to become the norm (eh, Donald). And it doesn’t make us blind to genuine fraud either. There is a problem with IP protection worldwide and there always has been (look what happened to Philo Farnsworth, the guy who invented TV as far back as the ’30s).

    Do yourself a favour and read the editorial….”doing science whilst chinese” is not a crime and never should be.

  4. Andrew Molitor says:

    I can kind of visualize a path here.

    “Hey, guys, these schmoes at the NIH funded thing are looking in to approaches A, B, C because that’s all they have funds for. Why don’t we put a horde of dudes on to D through Q, and while we’re at it, I kind of like A’ and C.2 approaches, which we’re also not able to look in to here.”

    I do take your point, Derek. Our government officials are certainly idiots barking up the wrong tree. All I’m saying is there might be a squirrel up this one too, albeit a smallish one.

    1. Hap says:

      If there’s a problem with Chinese espionage (as there is likely) it seems better to deal with it locally rather than globally – we have counterintelligence folks, after all. Going after the problem in this way mixes racism in with it and makes a solution (political or otherwise) harder to find (like immigration, I think, in general). If your tree is sick or has bugs that you don’t want, burning it down may not be the best option, and shouldn’t be the first option.

  5. luysii says:

    Well the best stuff the Chinese are producing in molecular biology is world class, and in this case, probably even higher. It is in no sense derivative or uncreative, although like everything in molecular biology, it depends on the decades of work preceding it.

    Nature vol. 568 pp. 179 – 180 (editorial), 193 – 197, 259 – 263, 2019.

  6. Wavefunction says:

    I am generally glad that the administration is cracking down on bonafide cases of Chinese industrial espionage and standing up to the Chinese government (something that past administrations should have done). But this particular line of questioning is not going to be productive. For instance there was that absurd question the FBI asked the Chinese professor at MD Anderson: “Are you focusing on curing Chinese rather than American cancer?”. My problem is that while there might be a few cases of even academic espionage, the government is really not the right entity to address them; not only do they routinely overreach and botch up investigations, but they usually lack the training to understand the science. It reminds you of absurd questions HUAC and the FBI used to ask American nuclear physicists in the 1950s to ferret out communists (Oppenheimer once had the right response: “Can you use radioisotopes for treating cancer for atomic energy? Sure you can. You can use a shovel for atomic energy. You can use a wine bottle for atomic energy.”)

    1. TroyBoy says:

      As an American, I’m happy to proclaim that I’m working on Chinese cancer–nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC), a head and neck cancer that disproportionately affects people of Chinese descent. NPC is also known as the Canton tumor because it affects people who speak the Cantonese dialect in China. So FBI, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to hack into my computer and question me about my research!

      1. loupgarous says:

        Has the epidemiology of that syndrome been elucidated better?

        Last I heard (long, long ago), the thought was that certain Cantonese dishes might play a causative role.

        1. TroyBoy says:

          There are a number of risk factors for NPC: First and foremost, they are almost universally Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV)-positive. Second, people in the region eat a lot of salted fish–rich in nitrosamines. Lastly, certain HLA alleles are more prevalent in this population that have been linked to NPC.

          1. Marcus Theory says:

            And of course just because a cancer disproportionately affects one group of people doesn’t mean it is limited to that group. My uncle died of this. And wasn’t Chinese, not that it’s particularly relevant. Cancers are cancers. We should be trying to treat all of them.

  7. you hired this guy ?! says:

    guarantee pretty much every project going on at any company in Cambridge, has been shown to someone in China.

  8. ScientistSailor says:

    The Chinese government doesn’t need spies to get our IP. They will just go into our servers with back doors and take what they want.

    1. loupgarous says:

      Or sign a contract with GE, who will sigh theatrically and hand over their IP after the letter of credit clears.

  9. Chairman Mao says:

    The Chinese are out for world dominance in the chemical and pharmaceutical space, and if you don’t see it, or you do business with them, you are naïve. Every email you send to them is captured by their intelligence agencies, and all the intermediates for patented US drugs are readily available on their open market. So you can read between the lines.

    That’s not to say there aren’t honorable and hard-working Chinese that do good science and chemistry, as there are and they are just as honorable as any working American scientist.

    But they too are pawns in this world-game of technological chess, and the pressures to succeed for them are enormous. Pressures Americans don’t understand.

    Your move USA.

    1. anon3 says:

      I have a hard time believing that legions of political hacks in the communist gov have the ability to sort through all this data and make much use of it.

      1. loupgarous says:

        They have universities to do that for them. One such university specializes in hacking our digital infrastructure.

  10. jt says:

    just for your information: about 1 week before June 4, 30 year anniversary of Tiananmen square massacre, over 90% anti-CCP (Chinese gov) were blocked on Twitter. It is a wonderful world so many people here are complaining how bad US government is.

  11. Anonymous says:

    1. Kiss the Chemist: “There is a problem with IP protection worldwide and there always has been (look what happened to Philo Farnsworth,” and Robert Kearns’ (intermittent windshield wiper) battle against Big Auto and MANY others. The difference here is that is at least possible to fight a US foe in the US Courts to recover damages. Some other courts (EU, Australia) are probably accessible, too. Even Apple and Samsung battle it out in court with legitimate means to enforce the findings.

    It is nearly impossible to fight patent infringement or theft of trade secrets once they are secured on the Chinese mainland. The PRC gov might be shifting their stance on IP theft. Even then, it is argued, that they don’t (or can’t) enforce compliance within their own country. Shut down one small infringing enterprise and two more infringers pop up in another industrial zone.

    (I know someone who sold patented products (manufactured instrumentation) to PRC and sales were very good ($multimillions). The Chinese read his patents, reverse engineered his shipped products, and within two years his sales to PRC were ZERO and declining in other markets. The Chinese instruments were exact copies. It was IMPOSSIBLE to enforce his patents against those infringers. See also: )

    2. The editorial says: “the U.S. could lose its lead by forcing or incentivizing great scientists and entrepreneurs to work elsewhere.” But the US has been doing that for decades! Anyone here ever hear of “The PhD Glut.”?

    Many US born, raised, and trained scientists and engineers were forced off of that path by downsizing US-based job opportunities, outsourcing R&D to Eastern Europe, India, and China and by the importation of cheap labor (“grad students”) from overseas, as well. Some of these grad students had phenomenal resumes (BS at University; 5 years MS(???) research; 3 years at a PRC chemistry company; etc.) that probably did not disclose actual PhDs awarded overseas. Many 22-year old US students with basic BSs and no advanced experience were demolished by that competition in the classroom and the lab. Profs loved those skilled hands in their labs and pushed lesser-trained newbies away … to other fields altogether.

    3. “The PhD Glut” disincentivizes the “best and brightest” US researchers to end up outside of their first-choice science R&D fields.

    4. I have had several scurrilous and untrustworthy non-US citizen co-workers but I don’t think that any of them were spies. The thing is, I have also had several scurrilous and untrustworthy US citizen co-workers! They weren’t spies, either. MOST of my foreign co-workers have been great people who were a pleasure to work with and learn from.

    I disagree with the legitimacy of the late-stage analysis (“infiltration of foreign spies into US research”), I turn the argument back to the earlier stage of positively incentivizing US citizen researchers to pursue careers in R&D and to support jobs in the US in US R&D.

  12. Geo says:

    Serving on NIH study sections while e-mailing other people’s confidential R01 proposals to China is the basis for some of these “accusations”. How low can you go?

  13. Calvin says:

    Derek, these posts are fun but sure do seem to bring out the crazies.

    I rather suspect that the senators have the idea that all this NIH funded research is discovering ALL of the drugs that are going to come to market. So these pesky Chiness folk are stealing blockbuster drugs because NIH funding invents ALL the drugs. So they think of Chinese industrial espionage as being exactly the same because to them biomedical research in academia and industry are the same.

    The current political climate is not really helping though and in the US (as in other places) foreigners (of which I am one) are being demonized. Not all Chinese researchers are sympathetic to the Chinese government, in the same way that not every American voted for Trump (or for any specific politician). People should be judged on their actions, not stereotyped on the basis of their race. And we should resist such racism with all our might!

  14. Emjeff says:

    Yes, I agree, the crazies are out. Let’s see: let’s write a blog post that says Chinese espionage is a problem. But then, let’s clutch at our pearls when someone else says essentially the same thing. It’s just unbelievable.

    BTW, I’m a little sick of everyone bringing out the racist card. It’s not racist to protect our borders, and it’s not racist to determine that a foreign nation is trying to steal our intellectual property – as nation, btw, that has a history of this sort of behavior. Stop being such sanctimonious p#*sies

  15. Eugene says:

    This problem seems to have been developing for quite some time. The Chinese have been actively engaging in industrial espionage for some time because there is no difference between industrial and military espionage. They have been actively collecting pieces of military hardware wherever they can, crashed stealth helicoptor in Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, F35 engineering server hack, F117 airframe in Yugoslavia. Industrial espionage is much the same. Based on some encounters and conversations I have had, Chinese engineers working in the US are under pressure to bring back anything useful, IP wise, to keep the government happy with them and their family (who are still at home).

  16. Eyeroll says:

    It’s appalling how these foreigners are stealing our ideas and-
    *checks notes*
    …publishing the results where everyone can read them?

  17. matt says:

    Qian Xuesen, the father of the Chinese space program, is the archetype of what should be avoided here. Trusted enough to be part of the (American) team getting von Braun’s team out of Germany, he was driven out of the US in the McCarthy era.

  18. Palo says:

    Spot on, Derek. The contribution of Chinese scientist to S&T in the US in the last 30 years has been nothing short of excellent and essential. American S&T has benefited from foreign educated scientist like no other country (just the savings in early education alone represent billons of dollars). Another MAGA Trump moment that would maker her weaker.

  19. Scott says:

    Please, explaining that 2+2=4 would confuse most politicians.

  20. Frank says:

    As a Chinese-born/US-trained industry scientist myself, I appreciate Derek’s voice against blunt racism carried out by the current administration/FBI, NIH director F. Collins, and MD Anderson (purging tenured faculty). The double standard at MD Anderson can’t be more obvious, since none of the faculties who misused funding to decorate lavish offices were forced out quickly. (
    While MD Anderson celebrates Jim Allison’s Nobel prize (, it has conveniently described PD-1/PD-L1 therapies as subsequent I/O drugs after CTLA-4. Anyone working in the I/O field can tell you that the discovery and development of PD-1 has benefited greatly from Chinese-born scientist Lieping Chen ( Ironically, the American-born president Jimmy Carter survived melanoma because of PD-1 antibody.
    Some of the comments here reflect a deeper layer of racism by scapegoating foreign-born scientist for lack of employment of PhD scientists. That is simply not true. In fact, foreign-born scientist are employed at a less ratio than they are in the graduate schools, based on my personal experience at big pharma and two mid-sized biotech. The disparity is even more dramatic at leadership roles. Derek’s current employer can test that.
    Now onto the reported espionage cases. I’m sure some Chinese scientists want to make quick money, but so are many others ( This is why CDA and NDAs were and the current system adequately allows legal repercussion. However, the many high-profile cases FBI has brought up were later proven totally bogus! (
    Lazy thinkers tend to group people by skin color. Yet, I have not seen a skin-color correlation reported for criminals carried mass-shooting in the United States. Needless to say, Senator Grassley and FBI are not working to fix that.

  21. Geo says:

    “Foreign entities have mounted systematic programs to influence NIH researchers and peer reviewers,” warned NIH Director Francis Collins in a memo sent to more than 10,000 research institutions last August.

  22. Rich Rostrom says:

    Complaining about “Chinese infiltration” of basic science, which is public, is mistaken. As noted, Chinese visitors have contributed importantly to American science.

    But China is an extreme authoritarian state, which regards every subject as property of the state. A Chinese national in the US is a representative of a government which kills people in cold blood for organ transplants. These crimes are performed by medical professionals, not “Party hacks”; do not delude yourself by thinking that professional or scientific ethics ever interfere with that government’s actions.

    There are many ways that Chinese nationals in the US could be used by the Chinese state.

    One who sups with the devil needs a very long spoon.

  23. Frank Uslan says:

    If we replace Chinese with Japanese, Jewish, or African American, would people frown at all? If generalizing people of the same ethnicity to the country or government is not racism, I guess I’m too naive on the definition of racism. Where is the “…will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”? I guess national origin is different than skin color, or sex orientation, etc. But what the heck, if people are different than me, they must be weird under the skin or somewhere.

    1. Anonymous says:

      To me, the policy and criticism had to do with STATE sponsored or state encouraged IP theft. Many years ago, Japan (and India and China) did not respect US copyright law. They would reprint expensive text books and reference works (and other printed matter) that could sell for less than 1/10 the list price. (E.g., one volume of Theilheimer might be $500; a knock-off was $40.) Japan outlawed such infringement in the 1980s or 1990s, I think.

      Japanese patent infringers can be sued in US or Japanese courts and the rulings can be enforced. I can’t think of any famous cases of Japanese researchers stealing IP from US hosts which doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Two examples, without detailed histories: (a) the transistor radio was invented in the US in the 1950s. The Japanese LICENSED the technology from Bell Labs and others, made some improvements and soon flooded the market with cheap, decent quality portable radios. Etc. (b) microwave ovens were invented and marketed by Raytheon in the US starting in 1947 but they were big and very expensive. Japanese company Sharp entered the market in the 1961 with smaller, cheaper ovens, but all legal. There was a time when most Americans thought that the Japanese had invented the microwave oven!

      In that sense, to me, Japan and the US are playing on a level field of patent law and enforcement.

      A Jewish spy or African American spy can try to steal IP and transfer it to a willing buyer, but there is no STATE involved offering encouragement, protection, or even pressure to do the spying. The stories about Chinese nationals being so encouraged or pressured are out there. And there is no way to sue Chinese companies and have the rulings upheld because the Chinese STATE does not enforce them.

      Oh … I don’t think the proposal to keep Chinese researchers out of US research labs is a good idea for a variety of reasons. But the difficulty prosecuting and enforcing IP against Chinese infringement is the discriminator when compared to almost every other advanced nation.

      1. Frank Uslan says:

        I thought government and citizens are not the same (ask those who didn’t vote for Trump/Obama…), and difficulty of legal enforcement is not the justification to discriminate people based on their origin (not even nationality, as some of the examples cited in the thread are all US citizens).

        Derek’s point is not on governments, but on live people, on the obvious trend “to start accusing US-based Chinese biomedical researchers in general of being spies and a security threat.” When we start generalizing, we are walking on a dangerous path, as history demonstrated many times.

      2. Design Monkey says:

        > A Jewish spy or African American spy can try to steal IP and transfer it to a willing buyer, but there is no STATE involved offering encouragement, protection, or even pressure to do the spying.

        You are quite wrong in Jewish case. Israeli industrial espionage in US is widespread, but tends to be thoroughly and deliberately hushed up, because, well, they are important friendlies, sufferers of Holocost and all that jazz. It’s not considered polite to touch that stuff even with ten feet pole.

        1. loupgarous says:

 is illustrative. More information in Victor Ostrovsky and Claire Hoy’s By Way of Deception and Seymour Hersh’s The Samson Option (although reading Hersh’s accounts of technical matters is best done with a box of kosher salt handy, as in “Project Jennifer” vs. “Project Azorian”).

  24. Geo says:

    New details revealed on NIH probe of foreign “ties” in Science July 3. Wrong to put this behind a firewall.

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