Just a few days after Harvard chemistry Professor Charles Lieber was arrested for secretly taking millions of dollars from the Chinese government as part of its "thousand talents" program to groom scientists in America to help China, a member of the American Physical Society’s Annual Leadership Meeting Plenary Panel on International Competition(1) tried to claim that China and America had Détente regarding nation-level interference in science during the Obama administration and Trump restarted it. 

Maybe the Obama administration did, but China never stopped.

Though other attendees with lesser grasp of reality may have been convinced by idealism about a communist dictatorship and that Trump is worse - the availability heuristic says we're biased against people and political parties we dislike - it flew in the face of facts. The Harvard chemist arrested earlier this week was bought off during the Obama years - he began getting his millions literally the first year a more pro-China U.S. President was inaugurated. And about a hundred Texas A&M academics taking money from the Chinese government also got funding during the Obama years, one to the tune of $14 million, Texas A&M discovered after it investigated due to pressure from the government, and only two disclosed it.

Texas A&M, to their credit, got an award from the Defense Department in 2017 for policing their own, and forcing their employees to stop helping the Chinese government, but most schools did not want to know and academics went above and beyond to hide their involvement.

It's ridiculous to claim Trump caused that problem.

As we had warned prior to 2015, when James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence revealed that Russia had been channeling money to environmental groups who would help undermine American science in their top two exports, energy and food, the tentacles of Chinese state interference go far deeper than have been revealed so far. American academics have been complaining about discrimination but it's so common everyone sees it.

The panel was intent on defending Chinese scholars, saying academia would grind to a halt without them, but the uncomfortable reality is that many Chinese students are under pressure we can't identify with. They must comply. Their families are back there, some of them on the hook for $35,000 or more they will never get back unless their children help back home. or worse, their families face jail time. China is not the America of Asia, they are a communist dictatorship. This seems to have been lost on American academics who rationalized their brilliance was why China wanted them to recruit to help China.

It is also ridiculous to claim, as the panel did later, that American science would grind to a halt without foreign scholars when it is due to China being willing to plant scholars in America that post-doc salaries are barely above minimum wage. There is so much excess science talent in academia that some labs offer post-doc jobs where you have to pay your own way. In no field but academia, except perhaps private sector French poetry scholarship, does having a Ph.D. pay as poorly as being a post-doc, and that is because we produce far more Ph.D.s, 6X as many, as the university system can employ. That makes it far easier for foreign governments to exploit.

One notable point was also made, and this is an argument aqainst overzealous government action. In our zeal to fix a number of problems that the Obama administration caused in its desire to cater to China, we shouldn't penalize people who have done nothing wrong. We don't want to cripple American science so much we no longer produce anything worth stealing. But for academics caught in this scheme, the full force of the justice system should be applied or the public's trust in science as a public good, and not a geopolitical tool, will be eroded. 


(1) Panelists Steven Chu, Obama administration Secretary of Energy, Craig Mundie, President, Mundie  &  Associates, Siegfried Hecker, Senior Fellow Stanford University, Andrea Liu, Professor of Physics at Penn, Petra Rudolf, President, European Physical Society Peter Knight, Senior Research Investigator Imperial College London. Moderated by Philip Bucksbaum. Mundie made the somewhat naive claim and then Professor Chu jumped in to give even more examples about how nicely the US played with China - while not realizing that China exploited that to take advantage of the American academic system. Start at 8:18:50 in the meeting video.