The Trump administration is considering a proposal that would ban Chinese students and Chinese scientists from working on sensitive research at US universities, according to The New York Times.
The proposal is rooted in fear. Worried by China's booming science and tech industry, the Trump administration wants to stop Chinese citizens from coming to the US and "acquiring intellectual secrets," as The New York Times puts it.
This sort of "intellectual theft" has happened in the past, and academic institutions are particularly vulnerable. The Defense Department statistics in 2014 suggest that universities were the target of almost a quarter of all efforts from foreign countries to access sensitive information.
As part of the solution, the White House is supposedly having a discussion about limiting certain types of visas for Chinese citizens. The projects that Chinese scientists and students will not be allowed to work on could be anything with "military or intelligence value."
Scientists have responded to the proposal with concern.
"Where specific and confirmed espionage is occurring, action must be taken, but obstructing scientific exchange based on non-specific concerns that could be applied to broad swaths of people is ill-conceived and damaging to American interests," said Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in a statement.
This fear is not misplaced. If enacted, such a policy could severely limit collaboration between American and Chinese scientists.&
With Beijing leading the way in cutting-edge technologies like advanced microchips, artificial intelligence and electric cars, the new policy could set back tech innovation in the US.
"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," said Holt.
"We strongly recommend that the administration work with the scientific community to assess and develop potential policy actions that advance our nation's prosperity."
It's likely that the Trump administration is considering new immigration restrictions to protect, among other things, American research on genome editing.
But Jef Boeke of New York University (NYU), who collaborates with Chinese researchers on synthesizing yeast genomes, told STAT News that far from protecting the research, the proposed restrictions would be "devastating" for the project.
The policy would hit Chinese graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and employees of technology companies the hardest.
Right now, more than one million foreign students study at US universities each year, and about a third of those paying students are from China.
And, as The New York Times pointed out, if the US makes it more difficult for science and tech companies to employ Chinese citizens, "more of these recently trained Chinese graduate students may return to China, taking their skills with them."
According to the president of the National Committee on US-China Relations, Stephen A. Orlins, this would be "tragic" for American universities.
"It's important that we don't let the security fears overwhelm what has made America great," he said.
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