8 May 2018

Further Restrictions on Chinese Researchers Being Considered

By Ashlee Wilkins

The New York Times reported last week that new rules on visas and export control specifically targeting Chinese citizens who seek to do research at United States' universities and institutes could be coming soon. According to the report, "The potential curbs are part of a broad set of measures the administration says are necessary to combat a growing national security threat from China, which it has accused of pressuring or coercing American companies into handing over valuable trade secrets."

Inside Higher Ed took a look at the potential implications for the higher education community, which could include further restrictions on the temporary visas used by graduate students and postdoctoral researchers and on the types of projects Chinese researchers could work on at private research institutions. Rules and regulations around "export control" already exist, with particularly narrow restrictions on participation in research by citizens of "designated countries," which include China. The new rules under consideration would reportedly expand the types of research projects, goods, and services that would be subject to export control when considering involvement of Chinese citizens.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) issued a statement after The New York Times report, stating,

“Scientific progress depends on openness, transparency and the free flow of ideas; these principles have helped the United States to attract and benefit from international scientific talent. Students and scientists from other countries strengthen U.S. innovation. We are concerned about news reports that the U.S. administration is considering further restrictions on visas that could limit the travel of Chinese students and scholars from China to the United States. To remain the world leader in advancing scientific knowledge and innovation while ensuring national security, the U.S. science and technology enterprise must continue to capitalize on the international and multicultural environment within which it operates. We strongly recommend that the administration work with the scientific community to assess and develop potential policy actions that advance our nation’s prosperity. Where specific and confirmed espionage is occurring, action must be taken, but obstructing scientific exchange based on non-specific concerns that could be applied to broad swaths of people is ill-conceived and damaging to American interests.”

— Rush Holt, Chief Executive Officer, AAAS

The Association of American Universities (AAU) also offered a statement to Inside Higher Ed:

"We want to work with the federal government to protect our national security interests while at the same time preserving the unique institutional culture of scientific openness that makes our leading public and private universities the destinations [for the] world’s best and brightest intellects who help to advance U.S. science and drive the U.S. economy forward.”

— Pedro Ribeiro, Spokesperson, AAU

National security agencies are not the only federal entities with concerns about alleged counterintelligence risks posed by Chinese researchers. In space policy, NASA and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) have been expressly forbidden against using federal funds to "develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement, or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company" in every annual spending bill since fiscal year (FY) 2011, including the most recent bill governing FY 2018. Scott Pace, Executive Secretary for the newly-reconstituted National Space Council, was quoted recently about the targeted concern over intellectual espionage from specific countries, saying that space is a “warfighting domain because the environment has changed as a result of China’s and Russia’s actions," as reported by Space News.

Last month, the Oversight and Research and Technology subcommittees of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a joint subcommittee hearing on the issue of alleged widespread intellectual espionage by foreign entities, particularly China, titled, "Scholars or Spies: Foreign Plots Targeting America’s Research and Development" (see the American Institute of Physics FYI coverage of the hearing). Representatives on both sides of the aisle cited concerns over national security, but some also reinforced messages of the importance of open science and international cooperation. In her opening statement, House Science Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said, "Academic and intellectual openness are key to the success of American higher education and America’s leadership in science and technology," and pointed out that many American Nobel prizes have gone to immigrant Americans: "From 1960 to 2017, foreign immigrants who settled in America won 81 Nobel Prizes in chemistry, medicine and physics and in 2016, all six Americans who won Nobel Prizes in chemistry, physics and economics were immigrants." The full hearing and the opening statements of the chairs and ranking members can be found on the committee website.

In another congressional hearing, this time a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in February, Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) Director Christopher Wray raised an alarm on Chinese "nontraditional collectors" — student and faculty scientists in the academic sector — posing a counterintelligence risk. He further decried what he called the "naivete" of academe, saying, "They’re exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere, but they’re taking advantage of it." He described the threat from China as "not just a whole-of-government threat but a whole-of-society threat on their end."

Multiple institutions and organizations in and beyond higher education responded to Wray's testimony with concerns about its broad characterization of an entire nationality. The Committee of 100, a group of prominent Chinese-Americans, released a statement that "denounces broad brush stereotyping and targeting of Chinese students and academics," and NAFSA: Association of International Educators released a statement about the value of Chinese students to the American higher education system.

The report from The New York Times does not provide the specifics of policy under consideration. If and when a policy change occurs, it will be announced on the Federal Register, with an opportunity for public comment (usually for a period of 30, 60, or 90 days after posting). We will keep the community updated on any future announced changes to the policy, and the Committee on Astronomy and Public Policy (CAPP) will discuss any potential AAS response, if it is deemed warranted. As always, please email the AAS Public Policy Office with questions or concerns on this or any other policy issue.