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Restricting Academic Ties With China Is a ‘Huge, Huge Mistake’ Warns Ivy League College President

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Brown University President Christina Paxson said she’s concerned that tighter federal government scrutiny of links with China among U.S. universities will hinder research and ultimately undermine the American economy.

“The message that we’ve been signaling out to the world is ‘don’t come’—especially if you’re from China—and I think that’s a huge, huge mistake,” Paxson said in an interview with Bloomberg News journalists on Wednesday. She said she had “several concerns” about how the course of U.S.-China ties “can potentially adversely impact the advancement of science in this country and also economic development of this country.”

Federal authorities have launched thousands of investigations since the establishment in November 2018 of the China Initiative, a sweeping effort by the Department of Justice, the FBI, and other federal agencies. A primary goal is to counter Chinese espionage in America’s corporations and research labs by rooting out spies and halting the transfer of information and technology to China.

Harvard University’s onetime chair of its chemistry department, Charles Lieber, was convicted last year of lying to federal officials about his business dealings with China’s Wuhan University of Technology. More broadly, the U.S. has seen a slide in the number of Chinese students on its campuses.

“We don’t want theft of intellectual property—we want to make sure that protected research stays protected,” Paxson said. “We’ve done a lot in recent years to strengthen and enhance our security processes within the university,” and Brown has strengthened its disclosure rules, she said.

At the same time, “we believe strongly in academic freedom and openness and exchange of knowledge,” the Brown president said. “And we don’t want to do anything that makes people afraid to collaborate with somebody on a great project at another university—that makes them feel like they can’t do the work, the best work that they want to do.”

China has denied any systematic effort of stealing intellectual property.

Amid heightened political tensions and Covid travel restrictions, the number of Chinese students attending U.S. colleges dropped 15% in the 2020-2021 academic year, according to data published by the Institute of International Education. China still sends the most international students to the U.S., with over one-third of total.

Brown itself has seen an uptick in students from China, with 147 among its undergraduate and graduate students combined last year, compared with 121 five years before and 93 back in 2012.

“We can’t have overly restrictive policies that will end up actually hurting the research that is going on to drive cures for diseases, economic development, things like that,” Paxson said. She urged coordination and communication across federal agencies responsible for research funding and for security, and between agencies and universities.

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