American Scientists Are Not a Threat to the U.S.

On Jan. 14, while announcing the arrest of a prominent Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s special agent in Boston said, “The real victims in these cases are you – the taxpayers.” He added that Gang Chen, a high-profile mechanical engineering professor and naturalized American citizen, had failed to disclose that he was, in effect, an agent of the Chinese government while “applying for scarce federal grants” and thus “knowingly and willingly defrauded at least $19 million in federal grants by exploiting our systems to enhance” China’s research in nanotechnology.

Chen faces criminal charges of wire fraud, failing to file a foreign bank account report and making a false statement in a tax return. He has not been accused of theft of trade secrets or espionage. The scientist has pleaded not guilty.

The academic community is up in arms over Chen’s arrest: over 170 professors have signed an open letter to MIT’s president in the scientist’s support. The complaint, said the letter, “has nothing to do with protecting intellectual property” and “represents a deep misunderstanding of how research is conducted or funded at a place like MIT.” The Institute put out a separate letter on Chen’s and its own relationship with a Chinese university that the FBI had questioned. Under an agreement, the Chinese institution would provide MIT with $25 million over five years for research, building renovation and other operational expenses. The U.S. school noted that the contribution wasn’t an individual one to Chen.

The one thing that the academics and the FBI agree on is the scarcity of grants. U.S. taxpayer money put towards scientific research is waning. The federal government provided just over 50% of funds in 2018 down from 59% in 2010 and 69% in the early 1970s. To put that in context, in fiscal 2019, just under 3% of the federal budget was allocated to research and development, the lowest since the mid-1950s. That’s why Chen’s activities to drum up non-U.S. funding aren’t out of the ordinary. In fact, a growing number of researchers have had to turn to other sources like the private sector and foreign governments to offset the U.S.’ pullback

Most institutions have been left to fend for themselves to keep pace with innovation. Spending on research equipment hasn’t really grown for the better part of the last decade. The universities themselves fund a quarter of the almost $80 billion of research and development they perform, according to the National Science Foundation, up from less than 10% in the 1960s.

That stands in contrast to what’s happening elsewhere in the world.  “America’s relative economic weight in the world has been declining for decades, and as other countries grow more prosperous, a growing share of global R&D is originating outside the U.S.,” MIT’s 2017 global strategy report noted. The U.S. has fallen to 28th place out of 39 in government funding for university research as a share of gross domestic product. The investment of the top 12 governments are more than double that of the U.S.

It's a shame. Academic institutions account for up to 15% of total U.S. research and development. This work at universities directly uplifts the economy : hundreds of starts-up are spun out of this work, millions of jobs are created, ideas and techniques often accrue benefits to the private sector.

Government money typically backs basic research – the nuts and bolts of science that help build the foundation for future projects. The private sector shies away from it because returns are unknown. Instead, companies invest in applied and experimental research which have practical and money-making results. That shift in focus threatens fundamental and long-term innovation. 

The U.S. government’s antagonistic approach hasn’t helped. As funding for science has taken a backseat, the campaign against the scientific community has widened. Chen’s was the latest in a string of charges brought against more than a dozen scientists last year under the Justice Department’s two-year old China Initiative.

In 2020, the U.S. Education Department released the results of an investigation into whether American universities were properly reporting their foreign funding. It called U.S. institutions “technological treasure troves” and concluded “for too long, these institutions have provided an unprecedented level of access to foreign governments and their instrumentalities in an environment lacking transparency and oversight by the industry, the [Education] Department, and our partner agencies.” In addition, it said the while institutions “vigorously pursue” foreign money, they provide “ineffective or nonexistent oversight of foreign source activities.”

Under Section 117 of the Higher Education Act of 1965, U.S. universities are required to report contracts with and gift from foreign sources that in total value $250,000 or more in year. The schools have said that the disclosures and reporting requirements under the 30-year old statute are cumbersome and unclear.

It is misguided for the U.S. to take on its own champions of innovation in an attempt to stave off China, which is in 39th place globally for government funding of university research but likely to increase its competitiveness. The U.S. needs to invest $29 billion annually just to climb to 15th place, according to estimates from the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. It would need to more than double that amount to get to 10th place. To tie Switzerland for first place would an additional $108 billion. The pandemic recovery will make any of that tougher.

The degree of risk posed by U.S. scientists to national security is a problem of Washington’s own making. Undoing the perception is its responsibility too.

Google’s search engine grew out of a $4.5 million initial National Science Foundation grant to two graduate students at Stanford University’s Integrated Digital Library Project; the Global Positioning System (GPS) is rooted in a defense department-funded project at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Anjani Trivedi is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies in Asia. She previously worked for the Wall Street Journal.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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