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Professor Rory Truex ’07 on America’s scientific exchange with China

Robertson Hall | School of Public and International Affairs
The Princeton School of Public Policy and International Affairs (SPIA)
Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian

Rory Truex ’07 is an assistant professor of politics and public affairs at the University. His research specializes in Chinese politics and theories of authoritarian rule. In light of the charges that the Department of Justice (DOJ) recently made against MIT faculty member Gang Chen, Truex wrote in The Atlantic about the dangers of harming America’s open environment of scientific research in a crackdown on possible Chinese espionage. 

In a Zoom interview, The Daily Princetonian spoke with Truex about America’s scientific exchange with China, how to best combat malign actors who are taking advantage of this relationship, and the role of American universities, like Princeton, in this arena.


The Daily Princetonian: How exactly would you characterize the extent of illicit activities that Chinese scientists or graduate students partake within the United States? And which ones should we really be the most concerned about?

Rory Truex: We actually don't know the extent of what's going on. And I think for that reason, we need to be particularly careful about government policy and the climate that we create at U.S. universities. My major concern is that a few cases are being used to justify a real change in approach of how U.S. universities interact with China, and I'm very concerned about an environment where people of Chinese ethnicity, either Chinese Americans or Chinese citizens, become stigmatized and viewed as agents of the Chinese government.

But with that said, we also can't be naive and pretend like nothing is wrong. We do know that the Chinese government is interested in getting access to American technologies and is engaging in espionage in the United States. So, the question is, well, how do we confront that challenge while also being true to our own values — particularly academic values — and creating an environment where Chinese scientists are welcomed, celebrated, and not stigmatized?

DP: What exactly is the harm of collaborating with Chinese scientists if the results of their research will be published in open-access journals anyways?

RT: There was a period of time when collaboration with China was viewed as a really good thing for American universities. I think [the primary concern] is research with national security implications that somehow is stolen or leaked to the Chinese government in some shape or form at an early stage such that it actually reproduces a military or commercial advantage. We know that the Chinese Communist Party has party committees in every major Chinese university and also keeps very close tabs on researchers. So, in some sense, partnering with a Chinese university is partnering with the Chinese government, whereas working with Princeton doesn't mean you're partnering with the U.S. government. So, there's an asymmetry that's important, and I think it’s part of the reason why some of these relationships are being viewed as more fraught than they used to be.

DP: There’s an argument that even if the results of research are not classified and will be shared with the wider scientific community anyways, the very collaboration itself can mean that we are improving the ability of Chinese researchers to compete with us. What is your assessment of that argument?


RT: This line of argumentation, the so-called “we're training their scientists,” is not inherently wrong, but one of its issues is that it completely neglects the upside of having Chinese citizens doing research on our campuses. U.S. universities are a strategic asset to the U.S. government in and of themselves, and U.S. universities are the envy of the world because we welcome people of all nationalities to come and do research. Now, if you shut off the pipeline from one-sixth of the world's population, sure, they're not going to get the benefit of doing a Ph.D. at MIT, but, guess what? Now, Tsinghua is a better university; Fudan is a better university; you erode the competitiveness of U.S. universities, and you strengthen Chinese institutions or European or Canadian institutions very quickly. So, I think it's sort of a moronic argument to say, “we just need to stop them from coming,” or “we don't want to collaborate with them,” because it completely overlooks the benefits.

DP: You wrote in The Atlantic that the Chinese government has “scrambled for ways to lure its talented citizens back;” how successful has that effort been?

RT: I think it's hard to say based on what we've seen in the data. The National Science Foundation conducts surveys on the intention [of foreign students] to stay in the United States, and the percentage of Chinese students who intend to remain in the U.S. has been in the high 90s for a long time. That number has gone down slightly to around the low 90s. So, there is some increasing attractiveness to going back to China in general, and that might be the pull of China, but also a little bit of a push away on the part of the United States in terms of the environment we're creating for Chinese citizens here. But it's important to remember that, still, the overwhelming majority of Chinese students want to remain here.

The efforts you're talking about are what we would call the talent programs. These are effectively joint appointments where a faculty member or a researcher can simultaneously be a professor at a U.S. university but also be on the payroll of a Chinese university. It allows that particular professor to potentially have a very nice paycheck, but it draws their attention away from their home university, and it potentially can be the precursor for a more problematic relationship where there is an illicit flow of science and technology that would be viewed as problematic by the U.S. government. In my opinion, I don't see a whole lot of good reasons for these relationships to continue.

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DP: As you wrote in The Atlantic, there’s no denying that the open system of scientific research fostered by America does come at a cost, which is that it can be subject to the abuse of malign actors. What is the best way of getting the greatest benefit from this system and minimizing the downsides? What are the roles of major research universities like Princeton?

RT: I think there's real room for trust-building between the U.S. government, particularly law enforcement, and universities. People are coming from two different points of view and from two different cultures. But I actually think there's a lot of common ground between those two sets of entities in trying to solve this problem. I personally have been fortunate to have conversations with government officials in the last year or two about some of these issues, and I've always found them to be very constructive. The second thing is, I think, there needs to just be improved attention to disclosure. A lot of this stems from properly disclosing one's financial relationships, whether they are grants or otherwise. I think some degree of better communication about this and standardization of some of these processes could go a long way.