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Global, Government, Public Health

Scrutiny of Chinese American scientists in US research institutions reflects lack of judgment

June 25, 2019 |5:50 min read

Targeting cancer researchers is wrong

For a while, we’ve been hearing stories about government inquiries into the actions of some scientists, especially Chinese and Chinese American researchers, amidst concerns that they are threats to United States science and society.

Bloomberg Businessweek published an in-depth story on the issues, focused on a scientist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Peter Waldman reports:

The dossier on cancer researcher Xifeng Wu was thick with intrigue, if hardly the stuff of a spy thriller. It contained findings that she’d improperly shared confidential information and accepted a half-dozen advisory roles at medical institutions in China. She might have weathered those allegations, but for a larger aspersion that was far more problematic: She was branded an oncological double agent.

In recent decades, cancer research has become increasingly globalized, with scientists around the world pooling data and ideas to jointly study a disease that kills almost 10 million people a year. International collaborations are an intrinsic part of the U.S. National Cancer Institute’s Moonshot program, the government’s $1 billion blitz to double the pace of treatment discoveries by 2022. One of the program’s tag lines: “Cancer knows no borders.”

Except, it turns out, the borders around China. In January, Wu, an award-winning epidemiologist and naturalized American citizen, quietly stepped down as director of the Center for Public Health and Translational Genomics at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center after a three-month investigation into her professional ties in China. Her resignation, and the departures in recent months of three other top Chinese American scientists from Houston-based MD Anderson, stem from a Trump administration drive to counter Chinese influence at U.S. research institutions. The aim is to stanch China’s well-documented and costly theft of U.S. innovation and know-how. The collateral effect, however, is to stymie basic science, the foundational research that underlies new medical treatments. Everything is commodified in the economic cold war with China, including the struggle to find a cure for cancer.

Dr. Wu, who stepped down after 27 years with MD Anderson, now is dean of the School of Public Health at Zhejiang University. Photo from Twitter.

Waldman explains that the National Institutes of Health and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are collaborating on probes that sometimes involve reading the private emails of Chinese American scientists, visiting their homes to ask about their loyalty and stopping them at airports. The article describes an over-zealous FBI doing everything possible to stop the theft of American intellectual property by the Chinese government. If Waldman is correct, there have been more arrests than prosecutions, and our government has been aggressively targeting ethnic Chinese scientists, the majority of whom are American citizens.

I grew up in the post-World War II era. Some of my and my sisters’ friends grew up in Japanese internment camps in the U.S. They saw relatives get sick and die in those camps. We saw photos of the camps and heard family stories (similar to what we are seeing and hearing today with the border crisis). The experience left an indelible mark of pain, humiliation and suffering on those who were targeted. Yes, it was wartime, but our government was wrong to round up innocent people and treat them like traitors — people who were living here legally, most as American citizens.

Back to Dr. Wu, then chair of Anderson’s Epidemiology department. She was accused of sharing intellectual property, because she asked members of her staff to download and print copies of grants she was reviewing. There were other allegations, but none would be considered heinous. According to the article, they might have been indiscretions but were not criminal activity. Wu also may have failed to disclose some honors she received from Chinese institutions, for which she said she received no compensation. These are complicated issues. What to disclose is not always as clear as it should be.

“If you searched through MD Anderson or any large research institution, you’d find people with these kinds of compliance issues everywhere,” says Lynn Goldman, dean of the Milken School of Public Health at George Washington University, as quoted in the Businessweek article.

Waldman writes:

To friends and many colleagues, Wu’s case represents overkill. There was no evidence, and no accusation, that she’d given China any proprietary information, whatever that term might mean in cancer epidemiology. She should have been given the chance to correct her disclosures without punishment, her supporters say. “Innocent yet meaningful scientific collaborations have been portrayed as somehow corrupt and detrimental to American interests,” says Randy Legerski, a retired vice chair of MD Anderson’s genetics department and former chair of its faculty senate.

I interacted with Dr. Wu several times when I was still an active cancer researcher and then when leading the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). She is a remarkable cancer epidemiologist who created some of the best characterized cohorts of Asians for the study of cancer predisposition. Her lab was particularly expert in conducting certain kinds of assays, including urinary cotinine. I’m not justifying any of Dr. Wu’s actions, because we don’t have facts, merely accusations. There are rules, and all of us must follow them, but FBI investigations should be reserved for real threats. Oncologic espionage may conjure James Bond-esque intrigue, but schools of public health, medicine, and other scientific and technical fields have many ethnic Chinese faculty members and students. We need them. What worries me is that our government would target scientists based on their country of birth, ethnicity, ancestry, race or other factors, with little hard information.

Waldman reports:

Yale, Stanford, and Berkeley, among other institutions, have published letters of support for Chinese faculty members and research collaborations. “An automatic suspicion of people based on their national origin can lead to terrible consequences,” wrote Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ in February.

Government officials acting on behalf of the country I love should know this and act accordingly.

As someone who devoted much of my career to cancer research and, most recently, chaired the President’s Cancer Panel from 2011-2019, I am particularly concerned about the potential impact of this misguided campaign on the future of cancer research, including population research, where we are so dependent on large cohorts and trials. China is a logical place to do some of that work, because of its rapid transition from a traditional culture to one that creates higher risks for cancer and other diseases like diabetes and Alzheimer’s Disease. When I was at the NCI (1997-2002), there was a great deal of pride in the role we played in science diplomacy — the idea that scientific collaboration should know no borders and could pave the way for other kinds of collaboration. I still believe that. Apparently, the current administration does not share that viewpoint, and America will be the loser.

The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.