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New U.S. guidance could mitigate racial profiling of Asian academics, officials say

The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus said a change in a grant application process could reduce mistakes that have been used against Asian scholars.
Congresswoman Judy Chu talks about the expanded Child Tax Credit.
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., speaks at Barrio Action Youth and Family Center, in Los Angeles, on July 15, 2021.Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus says a new rule change in a federal grant process will help prevent the wrongful prosecution of Chinese scientists and academics.

Members of the caucus praised the changes announced last week by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which are aimed at making the grant process more uniform and less prone to error due to unclear rules and instructions. 

In the past, the failure to report specific work history, for example, have been interpreted by officials as intentional attempts to hide ties to China. These mistakes, often due to the process’ lack of clarity and inconsistent rules across agencies, have been used against academics of Chinese descent because of the highly contentious China Initiative, a Trump-era Justice Department program, the statement said. While the program aims to counter Chinese espionage, it has led to charges of racial profiling, misconduct and discrimination. 

Now as the Office of Science and Technology Policy aims to create consistent grant forms and instructions, the caucus said, the new guidance could reduce potentially life-changing errors.

“The threat of espionage is a real one that our government must remain vigilant against. But because the China Initiative prioritizes indictments of people with Chinese ancestry, what are often just paperwork mistakes are instead being used to ruin careers and lives,” the chair of the caucus, Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., said in a statement. “We are pleased to see that our recommendations were adopted in this new guidance.” 

While the White House guidance has been hailed as a welcome change, Chu told NBC News that ultimately, the “flawed China Initiative must be ended.” 

Eric S. Lander, the department’s director, wrote in the announcement this month that he is directing federal research agencies to develop model grant application forms and instructions within 120 days. The forms and instructions would be uniform across any federal research funding agency.

The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus sent a letter to the Office of Science and Technology Policy in November, calling on it to make similar changes, removing the “contradictory requirements in the grant application process that have resulted in legal action being taken against researchers.” 

In the past there’s been confusion or misinformation around what work is necessary to disclose in the grant process, especially since some agencies, like NASA, have their own specific rules. The lack of clarity has led to application errors that have then been used against those of Asian descent, Chu said, citing the case of Anming Hu, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. 

While the FBI failed to come up with concrete evidence of espionage, they pressed charges against Hu in 2020. They accused Hu of intentionally defrauding NASA, from whom he had received research grants, because he failed to list his ties to a Beijing university on an annual form at the University of Texas. Hu had disclosed the ties multiple times previously. 

“Even after the FBI admitted to fabricating the evidence against him, they decided to try to continue to press the case based only on a mistake in a grant application,” Chu said. “This was so blatantly flawed that a judge took the rare action of dismissing the case entirely.”

Most recently, the Justice Department dropped its case Thursday against another researcher, Gang Chen, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who it had previously accused of concealing research ties to the Chinese government. The agency said it could “no longer meet its burden of proof at trial.”

Chu said that the prevalence of such cases have disparaged the academic community.  

“The damage has been done in the chilling effect these investigations have had on the community where far too many are afraid to enter the STEM fields lest they too be charged with espionage,” she said. 

The China Initiative, launched in 2018, has been subject to backlash, particularly from Asian American communities. Last year, several civil rights organizations called on President Joe Biden to halt the initiative, arguing that it subjects scholars and scientists of Asian descent to racial profiling and surveillance, oftentimes when no evidence of such behavior exists. 

“Individuals and their families who have been unjustly targeted have experienced irreparable personal and professional harm,” the letter read.