WASHINGTON — One of the nation’s leading scientific organizations on Tuesday expressed alarm about a report that the White House is considering imposing further limits on research by Chinese citizens in the United States, saying that “scientific progress depends on openness, transparency, and the free flow of ideas.”
The statement from the American Association for the Advancement of Science followed a report in the New York Times that administration officials are discussing proposals that might limit the ability of Chinese researchers to travel to and do work in the U.S., citing “people familiar with the deliberations.” The proposal is said to be a response to fears that Chinese researchers at U.S. academic institutions may be using their positions to acquire intellectual property.
“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,” said Rush Holt, chief executive of AAAS and a former congressman. “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.”
Other scientists echoed those concerns.
“It just seems odd that you would again try to restrict by nationality rather than on the basis of any one individual security threat,” said Dr. Atul Grover, executive vice president of the Association of American Medical Colleges. “That’s why we have a security process.”
The White House declined to comment. The Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security, which is involved in determining which research is restricted, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Special government permission is required before certain foreign citizens can pursue some kinds of research in U.S. labs. The fundamental technologies underlying genetic engineering, like CRISPR, are not currently subject to such regulations, according to documents on the website of the Department of Commerce.
But Kevin Esvelt, an MIT professor who is well-known for his work on “gene drives,” special genetic technologies that can spread modifications quickly through a population, said “preventing brilliant young Chinese scientists from coming to top American universities would certainly impede scientific progress, which flourishes when talent is geographically concentrated.”
“I imagine such restrictions would be particularly harmful in the long-term if it caused promising Chinese students to return to (or stay in) China rather than coming here and becoming permanent residents and citizens after finishing their training, which many currently do,” said Esvelt, who said that he wasn’t familiar with details of the White House proposal.
Genetic engineers gathered in Boston on Tuesday for the annual meeting of a consortium to create human and other genomes from scratch also expressed concern about the reported White House proposal.
“Reading between the lines,” said Jef Boeke of New York University, “I think it’s extremely likely they’re talking about this project.”
Boeke also leads an international effort he leads to synthesize and improve upon the complete yeast genome. For that project, he said, “it would be devastating. Our Chinese partners played a leading role in this, they were the first international partners to sign up,” and prohibiting Chinese scientists from working in or collaborating with U.S. labs “would be a disastrous policy.”
Sharon Begley and Erin Mershon contributed reporting.