When Science and Suspicions Collide: Collaboration versus espionage

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Charles Lieber was arrested late in January after receiving $15 million in illegal funds from Beijing. This further solidifies the importance for scientists to disclose all funding and connections to other institutions.  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Lieber was arrested late in January after receiving $15 million in illegal funds from Beijing. This further solidifies the importance for scientists to disclose all funding and connections to other institutions. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Children, undergraduates and even doctorate students yearning to be scientists are raised on the concept of collaborative work or sharing knowledge through scientific papers and working as a team to solve challenging problems. In academia, emailing a paper to a colleague that relates to their research is like a niche love language. However, politics and science do not operate in isolation, and recent efforts by the United States to prevent Chinese economic and academic theft has sent shock waves through the academic community, especially after a new case that threatens to be the match that lights a fire of mistrust, racial profiling and bureaucratic red tape. 

Charles Lieber, a chemist at Harvard University, was arrested on Jan. 28 after allegations of receiving funding by Beijing under the Thousand Talents Plan, which provides monetary support to attract the strongest minds in science to China, while denying this involvement to Harvard and the U.S. government. He created a lab in Wuhan, China in exchange for thousands of dollars from the Chinese government yet neglected to mention this exchange to the United States’ National Institutes of Health and Defense department. He then received around 15 million dollars from these organizations. 

Some scientists are viewing this oversight as an honest error, claiming that grant applications are complicated and that no malintent played a role in Lieber’s actions. However, the facts strongly indicate otherwise “I lost a lot of sleep worrying about all these things last night… I will be careful about what I discuss with Harvard University, and none of this will be shared with government investigators,” Lieber wrote to a research associate in 2018. Even without these incriminating words, no one simply forgets to mention thousands of dollars and a second lab, famous scientist or not. 

While other scientists have been accused of secretly collaborating with China, this is the first case where a Caucasian person has been investigated. Previously only those of Asian descent have been under suspicion, demonstrating racial profiling and causing American scientists of Chinese descent to fear for their jobs and reputations. However, this new accusation not only brings every nationality under the microscope but also further intensifies mistrust of those originally targeted. 

It is important scientists disclose all funding and connections to other institutions when applying for grants or other opportunities. This enables resources to be distributed fairly and all sources of bias to be accounted for. However, it is important we do not let accusations get out of hand and that all investigations occur with due evidence. Fear and mistrust are toxic to an academic environment, and if scientists, especially those who have moved to America from other countries, are afraid of being the next victim of a witch hunt, collaboration will decrease and less scientific progress will be made. 

To some extent, the context for Lieber’s case stems from greater problems. Funding sources such as the NIH are afraid of supporting riskier, bolder projects that may not produce meaningful results but also have the potential to initiate radical scientific progress. This can lead scientists to take drastic measures to find alternate, less above-board funding opportunities. 

In addition, politicians need to reevaluate their definition of academic knowledge and ownership. Science is intrinsically a collaborative process. According to Xi Xiaoxing, a physicist at Temple University who was accused of sharing sensitive information with collaborators in China but was later acquitted, everything he shared “was already public, because the findings of basic research aren’t secret… they’re published in scientific journals.” While researchers need to disclose all sources of funding, viewing collaboration with China as an act of espionage is a dangerous trend to follow and contradicts the very principles science stands for. While politics will realistically always influence researchers’ work, it is important to be aware of these issues, pressure elected officials to rethink their policies, and take a close look at our own biases, lest we learn nothing from the tales of racial mistrust and suspicion that leave footprints in every step of history. 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual writers in the opinion section do not reflect the views and opinions of The Daily Campus or other staff members. Only articles labeled “Editorial” are the official opinions of The Daily Campus.


Katherine Lee is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus. She can be reached at katherine.lee@uconn.edu.

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