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As relations between the American and Chinese governments have deteriorated, Yale professors are raising concerns about what the tensions spell for their joint research efforts with their fellow Chinese academics.

In recent years, interactions between the two world powers have become increasingly fraught. Both countries have erected trade barriers and the U.S. government has scrutinized academic collaborations with China. The coronavirus pandemic has hindered travel between the nations, exacerbating the issue. 

Some 26 Yale faculty work with China, according to data provided by the Yale School of Public Health. According to Yale researchers and experts, these changes jeopardize their research and future plans.

“It’s been a very major concern, how to respond to the current tensions and challenges,” Vice President for Global Strategy Pericles Lewis said. “The biggest area has to do with research, especially scientific research because some of the U.S. government agencies have put in new requirements or have sort of put a different emphasis on older requirements about participation in research programs jointly with Chinese entities — universities and companies.”

According to Lewis, much of the University’s research with China is in medicine and public health — including advising local Chinese governments on how best to protect people and studying diseases such as HIV. Researchers may face challenges both in securing funding and deciphering confusing new reporting guidelines, he said.

International Context

Top American universities have spent the last generation and a half building relations with China, history professor Arne Westad told the News. Yale has been at the forefront of this effort. It is the university with the longest tradition in China, Lewis said, and University President Peter Salovey has repeatedly emphasized Yale’s close ties with the nation.

“China is tremendously important in the world, as everyone recognizes,” Westad said. “It is absolutely necessary for universities to stay closely informed about what is going on in China.”

At the same time, Westad identified two concurrent issues — the Chinese government’s increasing authoritarianism and the Trump administration’s targeting of China.

Recently, China has generated international headlines for its internment of the Uighur people — an ethnic Turkic Muslim minority. Additionally, China has used violent measures to quell pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, citizens in China face threats to free speech, according to numerous experts. 

In the United States, Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Keith Krach wrote of a “real and urgent threat” the Chinese Communist Party poses for academic freedom at U.S. institutions in an August letter to the governing boards of U.S. universities. The federal government has repeatedly taken issue with elite universities’ ties to China, claiming that the country may steal intellectual property.

The coronavirus pandemic has heightened tensions. President Donald Trump has repeatedly referred to the disease as the “China virus,” and when the virus was at its height in China, the United States instituted a travel ban on Chinese nationals. Though the actions were in response to the pandemic, Westad said there is convincing evidence that U.S. decisions are not purely motivated by concern about the virus, but that there are political aims as well.

“The problem with politics in the current moment, including international affairs, is that it so often becomes binary in a certain way,” Westad said. “Either you are seen as sympathizing with the current administration here or you have some sympathies for China, and I don’t have much sympathy for either one of them to be perfectly honest.”

People can both be critical of the Chinese government’s attacks on freedom of expression and religion while also disagreeing with the Trump administration’s efforts to prohibit Chinese scholars and students from accessing the United States, Westad explained.

The U.S. Department of State did not respond to emailed requests for comment. Salovey referred the News to Lewis.

Effects on research

Yale faculty members remain committed to collaborating with Chinese colleagues, but government pressure has limited sources of funding and complicated joint projects, said Dean of the School of Public Health Sten Vermund.

For example, the National Institutes of Health may scrutinize grant requests submitted in conjunction with Chinese researchers, while it may not do so for proposed collaboration with other countries, Vermund said. Congress and the White House have placed pressure on the NIH not to provide funding to China, he added.

If researchers get funding from a U.S. agency, there are restraints on whether they can use that money to fund research done in collaboration with China, Lewis said. The challenge for Yale’s faculty has been that the agencies have at times been unclear in their directions, and have occasionally required more information than they would for other countries. 

“As the agencies have been very worried about China, they’ve sometimes been a little unclear in the directions they give us,” Lewis said. “So for example they’ll say you have to report all international activity. So if I go to Florence and give a talk about art history, is that something that has to be reported every time I apply for a grant?”

The U.S. crackdown on collaboration with China has already led to lost funding for some Chinese researchers. Vermund said there is “angst” within the Yale community about potential harm done to Chinese researchers, but that the University has no choice but to follow all federal directives.

The University has had to be increasingly vigilant to ensure it is reporting correctly, Lewis said. As a matter of common practice, researchers must report any international collaboration and fill out conflict of interest forms. The University’s International Operations and Compliance Committee has worked closely with researchers to ensure they follow all federal directives, he added.

One researcher, Research Scientist in Biostatistics Han-Zhu Qian, raised concerns that U.S. funding for research done with China will dry up. He has therefore shifted his focus to pursuing research with African countries instead of China.

Logistics pose another challenge to keeping up collaboration, he said. Usually, Chinese scholars visit Yale, but recently, Chinese academics have run into walls when trying to secure visas, Qian added.

Epidemiology professor Yong Zhu also said that in the past several months, some Chinese academics who usually visit the University have been unable to get visas from the U.S. consulate in China. He is unsure whether this is because of coronavirus concerns or political influence.

Some Yale researchers have said the changing attitudes have had little to no effect on their work. Epidemiology professor Kaveh Khoshnood, whose work strengthening research ethics is funded by the Fogarty International Center of the NIH, said that his research with Chinese colleagues has been unaffected.

Though the University does not engage in classified research, Lewis said, it has to be careful that it does not share sensitive discoveries.

However, he added, much of Yale’s research with China relates to medicine and health and is therefore of great value to the international community.

“We want to make sure that none of our faculty inadvertently fall afoul of regulations on what they need to report with China,” Lewis said. “At the same time, we do want to keep up the collaborations that are legal and legitimate because we do think there’s a lot to be gained from international collaboration.”

Benefits of cross-national research

At its best, cross-national research can lead to discoveries that would be impossible independently, Vermund said. 

This may be the case if researchers need a large sample size, are studying a disease more prevalent in China or need a diversity of population greater than one country can provide, he said. 

“Understanding other cultures is really key to peace and prosperity and global cooperation, so even if the situation were somewhat worse with China I would still think that it was very valuable to have Chinese students come to the U.S. [and] have American students visit China,” Lewis said. “Because of the kind of research that Yale has leadership in, we have a lot to offer in medicine and public health and we’ve had a lot of good collaborations with Chinese universities on those matters where we think we’re improving the health of the people in China but also overall in the world. I think that’s just a good thing even if there are rivalries in the political sphere.”

One example of a successful international partnership occurred earlier this year. In late January, the virus seemed to be a foreign issue to many in the United States. It was called the novel coronavirus, and it almost exclusively affected China. But it soon became clear that the virus would cross borders. Therefore, the dean of the Zhejiang School of Public Health in Hangzhou extended an offer to brief Yale researchers on what China had learned from the pandemic’s first wave.

Through webinars, Chinese researchers reviewed issues of testing, diagnosis, treatment and prevention, sharing the limited knowledge of the virus the world had access to, Vermund said. The conversations continued with Chinese scientists at the U.S. consulate, Epidemiology professor Luke Davis said. Some of the Chinese doctors shared manuals they had compiled and translated into English.

Throughout February, Chinese colleagues helped prepare Yale for the confounding illness that would soon fill the intensive care units of Yale New Haven Hospital with infected patients. They reviewed how to manage the hospital in response to the high number of patients and how to keep staff members safe.

Later, as they gained experience from Connecticut’s own outbreak, the researchers who had benefited from lessons from China offered support to colleagues in Africa. 

“We tried to pay it forward just the way the Chinese had done with us,” Vermund said.

The first call, with health officials in Burkina-Faso, happened in mid-March. According to Epidemiology professor Sunil Parikh, the experts from both countries spoke for about two hours, focusing on infection prevention and research. The call addressed how to curb the pandemic given the limited resources the country has access to — Burkina-Faso has fewer ventilators than Yale does, Parikh said.

But, he added, Yale’s researchers could in no way come in as the resident experts on handling the pandemic. Their counterparts had only to look at the state of affairs in the U.S. to see that, he explained.

“I think it was also appreciated that even with our fancy equipment, things were still extremely challenging to us in the United States and to just be upfront about that,” Parikh said. “We certainly didn’t have all the answers but we were trying to fill in as many blanks as we could.”

The calls were a bi-directional exchange of information, he added, with the researchers each sharing what they knew. The conversations continued with clinicians and officials in Ghana, Sudan, Myanmar, the State of Goa in India and Bangladesh. 

Along with clinical advice, the researchers provided solidarity from the front lines. The pandemic presents greater challenges because medical workers have to confront a potential risk as they go to work, said Davis. This is more like the plight of plague doctors they have read about, he added.

“To some degree, I think it’s kind of establishing expectations for how cruel of a disease it can be and for how unpredictable,” Davis said. “It is quite different in its character than many other similar viruses that we deal with, so I think a lot of it was just saying you’re going to see this and you’re not going to believe it, but this is what we’re seeing as well. That’s always helpful, whether it’s talking to another clinician who’s working down the hall from you or talking to someone who’s working on the other side of the world.”

As of Oct. 15, the U.S has reported more than 8 million COVID-19 cases while mainland China has reported 94,128 cumulative cases.


Rose Horowitch | rose.horowitch@yale.edu