The New York Times today published an article titled "Like it or Not, America Needs Chinese Scientists," in which the author discusses the importance of Chinese scientists to the American scientific community.

Dan Murphy, former executive director of Harvard's Verbank Center for Chinese Studies, began his article by arguing that the Chinese Communist Party has accomplished something rare in American politics these days, uniting Democrats and Republicans around a common enemy.

He said this "feverish concern" about Chinese influence threatens America's ability to attract the best talent it needs to maintain global leadership in science and higher education.

China Initiative

The damage caused by the Justice Department's "China Initiative" to pursue and now solve imaginary Chinese spies in U.S. research and industry to combat economic espionage continues to resonate, he said.

In some cases, it has led to researchers and academics of Chinese origin being placed under house arrest or taken in handcuffs for concealing links to China, cases that ended in acquittal or were later dropped. The program resulted in a number of prosecutions before it closed last year, but it upended the lives and careers of many and created an atmosphere of fear.

Current climate makes it harder for the U.S. to attract the best international students than it was 5 years ago

A survey of Chinese-American scientists at U.S. universities released last year found that large percentages of respondents felt unwelcome in the U.S., with 86 percent saying the current climate makes it harder for the U.S. to attract the best international students than it was 5 years ago. This is what he saw as a wake-up call that must be sounded in Washington, because economic and military advantage depends on excellence in science, technology and innovation, and competition for talent is global.

Studies show that the best science is often conducted by international research teams, perhaps because researchers can choose from a wider range of potential partners.

Attracting the best talent

When international cooperation is discouraged in the absence of clear national security concerns, it is a constraint on the pool of potential collaborators, which could weaken research. This was particularly true for China, which has become a scientific powerhouse.

Murphy commented that if America fails to attract the best international research talent, it will hurt its prospects for scientific progress and, ultimately, it will hurt America's economic and national power.

Many Americans need to learn about China because it will remain a crucial global player, and understanding its internal dynamics will be important for people working in various fields, he said. Yet we run the risk of an entire generation of Americans who don't know much about it.

Keeping U.S. higher education open to the world does not mean helping China become strong, nor should we fool ourselves about Beijing's intention. It is about instilling confidence in the power and virtues of the American system to ensure that the United States remains the best country in the world for learning and research.