Friday, July 05, 2019

Science and a nation of immigrants

It was very distressing to read this news article in Nature about the treatment of scientists of Chinese background (from the point of view of those at MIT).  Science is an international enterprise, and an enormous amount of the success that the US has had in science and technology is due to the contributions of immigrants and first-generation children of immigrants.  It would be wrong, tragic, and incredibly self-defeating to take on a posture that sends a message to the international community that they are not welcome to come to the US to study, or that tells immigrants in the US that they are suspect and not trusted. 

In any large population, there is always the occasional bad actor - the question is, how does a bureaucracy react to that?  One example:  Clearly some small percentage of medical researchers in the US have behaved unethically, taking money from medical and pharmaceutical companies in ways that set up conflicts of interest which they have hidden.  That's wrong, we should try to prevent it from happening, and those who misbehave should be punished.  The bureaucratic response to this has been that basically nearly every faculty member at a research university in the US now has to fill out annual disclosure and conflict of interest forms.   The number of people affected by the response dwarfs the number of miscreants by probably a factor of 1000, though in this case the response is only at the level of an inconvenience, so the consequences have not been dire.

Reacting to the bad behavior of a tiny number of people by taking wholesale measures that make an entire population feel threatened, unwelcome, and presumed guilty, is wrong and lazy.  The risk of long term negative impacts far beyond the scale of any original bad behavior is very real. 


Anonymous said...

You are a mensch, Mr. Natelson

Anonymous said...

This issue is what frightens me about the Quantum initiative, which largely fed off of politicians being fearful of China taking a lead over the US and hacking into our security systems.

The strategy of using China as a boogeyman worked and we got the funding, but this is starting a bad precedent for politicians.

Anonymous said...

Recently I was at a conference in Europe. Before I left, I received an email from my own university telling me that there was going to be an individual at the conference at a university in China that was considered affiliated with the Chinese government and that I should not discuss unpublished work at the conference or with this individual to avoid running afoul of export control regulations.

There are all indications that this is a university-specific policy from an overly-sensitive university, but the idea that I may somehow be restricted from talking about my science at an entire conference because of where one participant at the conference works is really troubling to me.

To be clear, this was a standard run-of-the-mill conference and I do not do anything that could even be classified or restricted in some way, or even monetized (I'm a theorist for crying out loud!).

Anonymous said...

On the comment from "Anon" at 12:13 PM:

The strategy of using China as a boogeyman to get funding for the Quantum initiative may be troubling, however, it seems the full generations of great progress in science and technology leadership of the US (much of which benefited all of humanity) since after WWII - and including the moon-landing 50 years ago - was motivated primarily by using the Soviet Union as the boogeyman.

We as rational scientists (and w/ perhaps a certain spectrum of cognitive abilities) may find this strategy troubling, or even ludicrous - however, this is how the politics of an any/average democracy "works".

As my one-time grad-advisor at Rice once told his wide-eyed research assistant, "we may never have anything close to a quantum computer resulting out of my or any research (which he promised to get his NSF funding), but we may just discover some really interesting physics".

Anonymous said...

The means do not justify the ends.

Anonymous said...

Anon@12:51 you probably meant "The end do no justify the means"...

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