Science & Tech

Why American Scientists Take Chinese Money

Charles Lieber leaves federal court after he and two Chinese nationals were charged with lying about their alleged links to the Chinese government in Boston, Mass., January 30, 2020. (Katherine Taylor/Reuters)
Sclerotic federal-grant programs make Beijing’s funding more attractive.

Harvard Chemistry Department chair Charles Lieber was charged this week with lying to the Defense Department about receiving funds from the Chinese government. Lieber allegedly took $1.5 million to open a research lab in China, as well as $200,000 monthly in cash and living expenses to conduct research for the Wuhan University of Technology.

A pioneer in the field of nanowires — infinitesimally small conductors of electricity with a wide range of potential uses — Lieber is no small fry. “For a person with his status and reputation the work for him [in China] was not important, and it was not necessary for him to do that for the money,” a Case Western Reserve professor who had worked with him told the Wall Street Journal. Indeed, Lieber received more than $15 million in grants from the American government. So why did he accept funding from China?

U.S. government agencies including the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health dole out more than $150 billion in research grants each year. University scientists rely on that money to fund their labs. Because grants can make or break a career, professors spend an inordinate amount of time navigating the funding labyrinth. A 2007 study found that researchers spend 42 percent of their time writing grant proposals and ensuring compliance with the conditions of the grants they receive. Stringent regulations on everything from affirmative action to animal welfare place a needless burden on scientists, reducing their productivity. Since any given proposal has a 20 percent chance of being approved, researchers devote 170 days to proposal-writing for every grant they’re awarded.

In addition to the administrative burden, American funding programs push researchers toward low-risk, low-reward studies. Since papers are evaluated by the number of citations they generate, professors tend to focus on questions that guarantee a meaningful result, rather than taking risks on novel research that might fail. Though the latter is more likely to deliver high gains in the long run, delayed recognition of breakthrough research means that scientists in new fields may have to wait years before they see results, which reduces their ability to attract funding in the interim. A 2016 paper found that “funding decisions which rely on traditional bibliometric indicators . . . may be biased against ‘high risk/high gain’ novel research.” As a result, American scientists tinker at the margins of existing research but rarely attempt breakthroughs. This partially explains the general slowdown of scientific progress over the past few decades.

Enter China. In 2008, the Chinese Communist party (CCP) announced the Thousand Talents Plan (TTP), which was designed to recruit 2,000 high-quality foreign professionals within five to ten years. By 2017, the program had lured 7,000 foreigners — more than triple its target. As part of a broad push to achieve global technological supremacy, China has committed 15 percent of its GDP — equivalent to $2.1 trillion in 2019 — to human-capital development.

The TTP doesn’t require grant applications or regulatory compliance, either. Faced with a choice between a Byzantine funding apparatus at home and instant cash from China, more than 3,000 university researchers have opted for the latter. In return for that money, the CCP requires its researchers to turn over intellectual property to which they have access, as well as to sign agreements preventing them from disclosing the results of work conducted under Chinese patronage. Some scientists have concluded that those stipulations are worthwhile. And in a perverse sense, it is true that the Chinese system provides a great deal of academic freedom: no applications, no progress reports, no environmental standards. In a few cases, TTP-linked academics have even opened “shadow labs” in China that conduct research identical to what they are doing domestically. The effect is a wholesale transfer of American intellectual capital and property to our largest geostrategic foe.

The TTP encompasses not only university labs but also U.S. government facilities. Federal agencies have discovered that employees downloaded classified information before visiting China, and an American defense contractor testified to the Senate that more than 300 U.S. government researchers had accepted TTP money right under the government’s nose.

In November 2019, the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations issued a long-overdue report on the TTP. The report recommended stricter grant-compliance provisions, stronger cybersecurity, and increased scrutiny of research facilities by American law-enforcement agencies. While these measures would partially combat Chinese intellectual-property theft, lawmakers in Washington should also reflect on why China’s money is so alluring to American scientists.

Partially, it’s because there’s a lot of it. While the White House has proposed cuts to the NSF and NIH budgets in recent years, the CCP has committed orders of magnitude more money to its recruitment programs. In addition to beefing up IP protections, Congress should allocate more funding to foundational research. But money alone won’t solve the problem. As long as the federal grant-approval process remains sclerotic and risk-averse, American scientists will be unlikely to maintain their global preeminence. Federal agencies should roll back onerous regulations and give researchers more control over grant money and lab operations. By deemphasizing bibliometric criteria, they could also provide scientists more of the leeway necessary for scientific breakthroughs. Outside the public sector, tax incentives could increase the viability of novel research in private labs.

The Chinese threat must be confronted head-on, but to truly neutralize it, America will also have to nurture its natural competitive advantage.

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