The Real Danger of a Biological Cold War with China

An illustration of American and Chinese agents of espionage.

Can we thwart Beijing’s drive for U.S. secrets without stifling science or harming American innovation?

Houston is probably not the setting a spy novelist would have dreamt up for a story about 21st century cat-and-mouse espionage. But the city is home to more than 1,700 life science businesses as well as the Texas Medical Center, a sprawling 50-million-square-foot complex that bills itself as the world’s largest medical city. As a whole, Houston hosts a massive medical research and biotech ecosystem whose innovations have the potential to shape economic and military fortunes well into the next century. 

But during the depths of the COVID-19 crisis last summer, Houston found itself not far from the pages of a pulp thriller when the whiff of burning secrets suddenly thrust the city into headlines that portended an escalation of a techno-nationalist rivalry—one that many analysts fear could define U.S. domestic and foreign policy for decades to come and some have begun to call a new cold war. 

At 8pm on Tuesday, July 21, 2020, responders began arriving at 3417 Montrose Boulevard in the heart of Houston’s trendy Montrose neighborhood, which is famous for its gay bars and eclectic art scene. Fire trucks arrived with police in tow, and what unfolded next, according to onlookers, was a bizarre standoff. “All the firefighters were just surrounding the building,” one witness told local news channel KPRC 2. “They couldn’t go inside.” Beyond the perimeter wall was the Consulate General of China in Houston, where witnesses saw a row of flaming barrels, apparently being fed with armfuls of documents. “You could just smell the paper burning,” one reported.

By the next day, word was out, and federal authorities in the United States ordered the building closed. China’s Houston consulate had become a “central node of the Communist Party’s vast network of spies,” said Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who was then acting chair of the powerful Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Democrats on the committee echoed such concerns, apparently on the basis of intelligence from the FBI. Diplomatic staff at the consulate were given three days to clear out, and President Donald Trump threatened to shutter more diplomatic missions. 

The administration justified the expulsion with the sweeping claim that the Houston consulate was orchestrating a campaign of industrial espionage, part of a “Chinese theft on a scale so massive that it represents one of the largest transfers of wealth in human history,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray. The cost of this espionage to the United States, other officials in the Trump administration reported, was somewhere between $225 and $600 billion every year. No substantial proof for the U.S. escalation was disclosed but in the weeks after the night of the burning barrels, State Department officials told reporters that Chinese agents had been attempting to steal coronavirus vaccine breakthroughs. 

Amid this increasingly combustible Sino-American power struggle, the Houston incident gives a glimpse into how national security measures are impacting university and high-tech researchers and the communities in which they live and work—but the picture that emerges is not what you might think. 

Conversations with experts in biotechnology, academia, and biosecurity reveal a U.S. approach to policing intellectual property theft that is at once aggressive and disjointed: A mishmash of national security moves that are overreaching and potentially damaging to U.S. research and innovation, while offering few reassurances of greater protection. Some of these experts say so long as the threats posed by Chinese economic espionage remain ill-defined, the current U.S. strategy risks doing more harm to U.S. industry than good.

Innovation is what’s at stake

Looking at the front page of the New York Times on that same morning of July 21, 2020, you would have seen news of successful early trials for the COVID-19 vaccines made by AstraZeneca, the Chinese company CanSino Biologics, and Pfizer. These announcements followed a similar one a week earlier by Moderna. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which were both approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration a few months later, owed part of their rapid advance to breakthroughs made at nearby University of Texas at Austin, building on a decade of research from the coronavirus vaccine research consortium at Baylor College of Medicine, one of the main institutions at the Texas Medical Center. 

Some researchers in Houston have been left wondering whether the normally open and collaborative research environment there would persist amid actions taken in the name of safeguarding U.S. technology. A month after the document-burning incident, Chinese-born biologist Nianshuang Wang—part of the team at UT Austin who in the early months of 2020 designed the stabilized SARS-CoV-2 S antigen, an important step in developing the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines—left Texas for New York. As a Chinese national without a permanent visa, he spent months struggling to find work before finally securing a job with biotech company Regeneron Pharmaceuticals (whose experimental treatment for COVID-19 was given to President Trump). According to a Bloomberg report, Wang counted himself lucky just to survive in this climate. 

Others did not escape the dragnet, like celebrated epidemiologist Xifeng Wu, who left her position as the director of the Center for Public Health and Translational Genomics at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in early 2019 and was appointed Dean of the School of Public Health at Zhejiang University. Wu along with at least four researchers was investigated for undisclosed links to China but none were ever prosecuted. By the time the Houston embassy was closed, she was a leading voice in China’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak. 

“These kinds of stories are widespread in Houston,” says Steven Pei, a professor at the University of Houston, Pei reels off recent tales of PhD students being sent back on flights, two of whom ended up living for nearly two months in Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, after testing positive for COVID-19 during the unplanned round trip and being unable to fly back home to China. Another scholar named Zhengdong Cheng of Texas A&M, who was arrested and denied bail a month after the embassy was closed, also tested positive for the disease while in custody. Many researchers who were eventually cleared of any charges nevertheless have faced lives “ruined” since investigations into Chinese researchers intensified around 2017, says Pei. 

Many researchers who were eventually cleared of any charges nevertheless have faced lives “ruined” since investigations into Chinese researchers intensified.

Much of this anti-espionage action comes under the umbrella of the China Initiative, launched in 2018 by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to protect against China’s “economic aggression” and intellectual property theft, by rooting out espionage in fundamental research. Further measures under the initiative—to police corporate transactions, defend against hacking, and securitize startups—aim to prevent China from exploiting free trade and the openness of science through means both legal and illegal to close the technological gap with the United States. Yet wading into a new era of superpower rivalry, says Mike German, a former FBI agent and fellow for the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security Program, risks “burning down the house to smoke out the rats.”

“And not just burning down the house, but burning the fields, and salting the pond,” says German. “Because certainly if you look at the security situation, for all countries in the world today, the biggest threats are the effects of climate change, [and] pandemics. They’re problems where science and technology is the answer to improving our security.”

Three years before the China Initiative was announced, Beijing unveiled its Made in China 2025 industrial strategy and publicly declared its ambition to dominate 10 key sectors of science and technology by 2025, including biopharma. A separate strategic document produced by the Chinese government known as the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021–2025) targets expanding the bioeconomy, with biotechnology listed among the strategic emerging industries where the government aims to drive further growth. American efforts since 2015 to grapple with Chinese intent to close this technological gap have included counter-espionage activities and programs that span the State and Justice departments and other agencies responsible for science and trade. The committee regulating foreign investment has been strengthened, indictments have targeted the architects of far-reaching cyber threats, and the effects of a campaign by the FBI to develop the capacities of startups to protect IP known as the “Delta Protocol” have been felt across Silicon Valley. FBI director Wray has described China as “not just a whole-of-government threat, but a whole-of-society threat” that demands a coordinated response. 

Stealing today to invest in tomorrow?

This geopolitical entrenchment has sent commenters searching for Cold War metaphors: Bloomberg called the China Initiative a new “Red Scare”, while scholars Hal Brands and John Lewis Gaddis wrote in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs that it is “no longer debatable that the United States and China… are entering their own new cold war.” While Brands and Gaddis draw distinctions from the U.S. half-century battle with the Soviet Union, they do foresee an escalating, protracted international rivalry with the potential to break into more open conflict. 

Yet, writing in a blog for the London School of Economics, analysts Efekan Bilgin and Alphonse Loh say today’s competition can be best understood, first and foremost, in terms of China’s long-term ambitions of “decoupling” economically from U.S. technology, especially in the core areas of research and innovation where it remains most reliant on rivals, even as it has become the world leader in manufacturing. They call it the latest phase in a techno-nationalist race, a throwback “mercantilist” strategy, where China aims in the short term to raid competitors to close the technological gap, while it invests in the longer, more substantial task of building a domestic innovation ecosystem.

A year on from his 2020 election, President Joe Biden has faced questions about whether he would make a decisive break with his predecessor’s policies, which deepened divisions with China, in light of his past personal relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Those questions appear to have been answered. While less outspoken than his predecessor about it, the new administration is nevertheless bulking up Trump’s tough-on-China approach and has recently launched new CIA mission centers in October focused specifically on China and emerging technologies. The upshot for science and innovation is that long-standing commitments to scientific openness and free trade are no longer guaranteed, and in both corporate transactions and scientific research, people will inevitably ask “What’s in it for the U.S.?” 

“The period that was broadly described as ‘engagement’ has come to an end,” said Kurt Campbell, the White House’s top national security official for Asia in May. From now on, U.S. policy toward China will be defined by “competition” and a “new set of strategic parameters.” 

But current measures to curb the very openness that for decades has been the cornerstone of U.S. leadership in science and technology are drawing fire—as is the growing scale of the efforts to clamp down on China. 

Maggie Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University, says she has found no precedent for the Department of Justice (DOJ) naming an initiative after a single nation. DOJ initiatives have targeted criminal activities, like cyber fraud, and some focused on certain locations, like drug cartels based in Mexico, but it has been a break with norms to imprint this effort with the name of a country. The Department justifies this focus with claims that about 80 percent of all economic espionage prosecutions allege conduct that would benefit the Chinese state. Day-after-day, the FBI opens a counterintelligence investigation into China every 10 hours, according to Director Wray, and “not because our folks don’t have anything to do with their time,” he has said. The FBI now has some 2,000 open investigations into China

“Many of my Chinese-American faculty colleagues feel that they are under increased and unjustified scrutiny by the U.S. government.”

Yet critics like campaign group Asian Pacific American Justice Task Force point to a series of five failed prosecutions in two days in July, marking the nadir of a high profile string of dismissed cases throughout 2021. Many of the China Initiative cases did not allege espionage but lesser charges of visa fraud and/or concealing links to China in funding applications to federal bodies like the National Institutes of Health and NASA. The program’s highest-profile arrest, of nanotechnology pioneer Charles Lieber, the former chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University, charged him with concealing his involvement in the Thousand Talents Plan. Failure to report such connections when applying for federal funding have been the most common charge since 2018, with only two out of 23 charges against academics actually alleging espionage, according to a Law360 analysis

A broader analysis of people charged under the Economic Espionage Act since 1996 shows that people with Chinese- or Asian-sounding names are far more likely to be charged but much less likely to be convicted. The report, by the Committee of 100, a group of Chinese-American civic leaders, found nothing like the rates of connection to China alleged by the DOJ: Just 46 percent of people charged under the Act were accused of stealing for China. 

The Department of Justice was contacted with questions for this article but did not respond. 

At the House Judiciary hearing on October 21, democratic California congressman Ted Lieu called on Attorney General Merrick Garland to review the China Initiative to avoid adding another shameful entry to American history books. “If we look at one of the darkest periods of our nation’s history, over 100,000 Americans who happened to be of Japanese descent were interned because our government could not figure out the difference between the Imperial Army of Japan and Americans who happened to be of Japanese descent,” said Lieu. “I am asking the Department not to repeat that similar type of mistake.”

Atmosphere of fear

Against a backdrop of rising anti-Asian hate during the pandemic, the China Initiative has handed lots of fuel to the Chinese propaganda machine, says Maggie Lewis. For a nation hoping to keep more of its top scientists living and working in-country, it has been easy for authorities to spread the message that “they don’t want you, anyways”, says Lewis, who is based in Taiwan. China’s own domestic counter-campaign to root out American spies in China is currently intensifying

In the United States, the extent of the chilling effect appears most pronounced where economic espionage is typically least prevalent: Basic research, where the norm is to publish findings in science journals. Overall, just 3 percent of alleged economic espionage has occurred in research institutions, the Committee of 100 report found. Yet academics, including high-profile scientists, are now under pressure, according to Nobel prize-winning Stanford physicist Steven Chu. “Many of my Chinese-American faculty colleagues feel that they are under increased and unjustified scrutiny by the U.S. government,” said Chu, a former Secretary of Energy, at a congressional roundtable in June. 

University of Houston professor Pei says the cost is counted across the board in research hubs like his city, where the scrutiny of Chinese researchers began to intensify in 2017, with investigations into faculty at Baylor College of Medicine, UT Health Science Center, and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “There is a wave of Chinese scientists leaving,” he says, from rising stars who are returning home to China rather than sticking around to forge careers, to world-leading established scientists who have relocated to Europe or Canada. “These are people that foreign countries have tried to recruit for 10–15 years without success. The China Initiative has helped [China’s leaders] achieve what they couldn’t on their own.”

One key problem is the Initiative’s focus on “non-traditional collectors” of information. Mike Orlando, acting head of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center told CBS in May that these “are students, researchers, businesspeople, people who have legitimate jobs, who act as proxies or surrogates for the intelligence service.” While the DOJ claims the China Initiative targets agents of the state rather than regular researchers of Chinese descent, the focus on non-traditional collectors quickly complicates this, casting anyone as a potential (if unwilling) agent. “Everything would be so much simpler if we were living in a John le Carré novel, right? Where there were spies and non-spies,” says Lewis. 

An illustration of eyes overlooking a scientists.

A chilling effect on biotech 

The impact of the China Initiative can also be felt far beyond the individual Asian academics swept up, and their institutions. According to a national security report by Rob Carlson and Rik Wehbring for Johns Hopkins University, U.S. biotechnology revenues now exceed $400 billion, or 2 percent of GDP, with Chinese revenues reported to be of a similar size. 

But treating biotech as zero-sum game takes attention from where it is needed most: growing the pie, with consulting giant McKinsey estimating that biotechnology could soon be worth $4 trillion a year, worldwide. The primary long-term strategy for the United States to maintain its strategic lead, Carlson and Wehbring write, “Must be to increase its own domestic invention and innovation capabilities.” 

Brothers Ben and Jamie Heywood have experience of how such economic value is today being destroyed by regulation, as co-founders of health tech startup PatientsLikeMe. In 2019, PatientsLikeMe was forced to find a new buyer for a majority stake that it had sold to Chinese biotech startup iCarbonX, by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), an until-recently little-known inter-agency body created by President Ford. Once largely concerned with preventing critical infrastructure from being sold to foreign powers, its remit has ballooned in the last five years, doubling its number of investigations between 2016–2018 after a record year for Chinese mergers and acquisitions in the United States. This is the federal body that ordered the sale of the social media and dating app Grindr by Chinese mobile gaming company Kunlun in May 2019 a year after that company purchased it. The Committee on Foreign Investment reveals little about its deliberations, but two U.S. officials anonymously told Reuters news agency and the New York Times that the decision was motivated by fears that Grindr, mostly used for gay dating and casual hookups, could allow personal information about Americans to fall into Beijing’s hands, leaving American officials or contractors vulnerable to blackmail. 

Founded in 2004, PatientsLikeMe is a social network that allows people with particular diseases or health conditions to connect to each other. The Heywoods launched it after their brother Stephen was diagnosed with ALS, and their company soon earned recognition from MIT Technology Review and Fast Company as one of the most innovative healthtech startups in the United States. The Heywoods sold a stake in 2017 to Shenzhen-based iCarbonX, an AI and biotech startup founded by genomics pioneer Jun Wang. iCarbonX intended to act as technology partner as well as investor, with its ultimate aim of analyzing user data and health information with AI to understand how medical and environmental factors come together to influence patients’ lives. PatientsLikeMe’s behavioral data from its 400,000 members’ experiences would be married with genetic and medical data from iCarbonX’s other health care companies and Wang’s machine learning capabilities. From this process, the startup could learn how diseases manifest in the body over time: which medical interventions, lifestyle changes, and everyday actions inhibited the disease’s progression or worsened symptoms. 

When the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States moved to force the sale of their company—a decision which Ben Heywood says has never been properly explained. It resulted an undervalued fire sale of the company to U.S. insurance giant UnitedHealth. Heywood says this cost him millions of dollars and resulted in the ambitions of PatientsLikeMe—to integrate AI with people’s data to make discoveries and improve their lives—to remain unfulfilled. Via Zoom, Heywood expressed exasperation following his attempts to work with the committee to protect customer data and secure intellectual property. “It was actually quite frustrating—twofold—one as a capitalist and two as a U.S. citizen. I’m like: ‘I want to do the right thing,’” says Heywood. “‘I don’t want to do anything that hurts national security. ‘So, let’s talk! Tell me the risks and we’ll figure it out.’” 

Similar startups had never before faced this kind of roadblock. In 2013, CFIUS approved the purchase of Silicon Valley startup Complete Genomics, which had contracted the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) to sequence tens of thousands of Americans’ genomes. 

Heywood says the company developed mitigation frameworks “in the blind” to keep the sale to iCarbonX moving forward. He says he went above and beyond what would be expected of any American business, proposing an oversight board with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services officials and a four-star general, plus software and hardware access for the federal government, among other measures. “As far as I know, we designed the most comprehensive data sharing, transparency, [and] data localization and control framework I think has ever been put down on paper,” he says. “And they rejected it.”

Quasi-state actors

But in recent years, the committee’s ability to scrutinize the sale of U.S. companies to foreign entities has been significantly broadened. These new powers—under the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act of 2018—were “a new layer of complexity and uncertainty added to an already opaque process,” according to Bloomberg Law. The CFIUS committee now requires reviews of most foreign-government-related investments in critical technology, infrastructure, and data (so-called “TID” businesses), and the number of investigations is expected to triple from its 2018 figure to 1,000 cases a year.

In an op-ed for Protocol calling for reform, lawyer Stephen Heifetz, who previously served in the U.S. government as a CFIUS official, calls the current bureaucracy “a structural nightmare,” which permits no oversight and whose judgments cannot be challenged in court. Heifetz says CFIUS’ shortcomings go beyond a simple lack of transparency and include a “consensus” decision process that favors the loudest voices, rather than coolest heads. “It would be ironic and perhaps tragic if the next great companies in the areas of, for example, biotech, autonomous vehicles, or quantum computing—those merely illustrative of all the technologies that can make significant contributions to national security—choose to grow roots abroad because of the committee’s efforts to protect national security,” he writes.

The Treasury Department, which chairs CFIUS, did not respond to questions about its structure or reforms.

Heywood’s take on the current situation might sound familiar to China Initiative critics who have likewise complained of national security overreach. “What I don’t like about what happened with the latest round of CFIUS regulations is that they created an industrial policy through the backdoor of national security, with very little due process and transparency,” says Heywood. “That’s the thing that I can’t reconcile: CFIUS is like de-facto centralized planning as opposed to actually doing real national industrial policy development.”

“Just a few short years ago, nobody would have imagined that a foreign state would send spies to steal cancer research.”

Not everyone agrees, and some say there truly is danger associated with foreign investment, which is exactly what the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States was designed to police. While in individual cases we can see the damage done, shying away from tough decision-making on deals with China would be naive, says Jamie Metzl, a technology expert who previously worked for the U.S. National Security Council and Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Chinese companies must be seen as “quasi-state actors,” says Metzl, who favors careful CFIUS-style review of foreign investment in U.S. companies—particularly by Chinese investors, who may be under Beijing’s thumb whether they like it or not. “Even if they think they’re independent,” says Metzl, “they have to internalize the needs of the state because they know if they cross a line, then the state will step in.” 

He points to the disappearance of Jack Ma and the reining in of tech giants like Didi. “They were delivering that message to every CEO and every board: You are ultimately subservient to the state.”

In the biotech arena, this danger of hidden agendas seems particularly pronounced, with more than half of the Chinese biotech investments in the United States put in place for strategic purposes, according to the Johns Hopkins report. BGI, the world’s largest biotech firm and the firm previously led by iCarbonX’s founder Wang, has been at the center of this storm. Since taking over Complete Genomics, BGI has been the subject of a Reuters investigation for harvesting data from millions of pregnant women around the world using prenatal tests, with U.S. intelligence raising fears about the company’s ties to the Chinese military’s People’s Liberation Army. “China is seeing its science and technology sectors, both academic and business, in a strategic context,” says Metzl. “That’s forcing us to see these sectors in the same way, which is why we have to do these crazy things like police our cancer research centers. Just a few short years ago, nobody would have imagined that a foreign state would send spies to steal cancer research.” 

Whose threat is it anyway?

What happens if this IP and personal data fall into the hands of Chinese intelligence and state actors? 

DARPA, the Department of Defense’s research and development agency, consistently ranks the biological sector among its biggest defense research funding priorities, showing that the defense establishment believes there is a real threat here, says Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London. Lentzos says China’s investment in recent years should be a cause for vigilance. “If you’re looking at what’s going on in China right now, they are also investing incredibly heavily in biology, in terms of infrastructure, in people, and in projects,” says Lentzos. “All of these capacities have dual-use aspects. So if they wanted to, they could be used to cause harm.” 

It’s worth noting that the United States, Russia, and China are all parties to the United Nations’ Biological Weapons Convention, the 1972 multilateral disarmament treaty that prohibits the “development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling, and use of biological and toxin weapons.” Nevertheless, in military applications there is often a fine line between justifiable work to develop biodefenses and offensive capabilities, explains Lentzos. The controversial U.S. National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center falls into this “gray zone” because it researches and simulates a wide variety of ways a hypothetical biological attack could be carried out, and in doing so this biodefense center’s war games share beginning-to-end similarities with the actions of a power that was planning an attack. Lentzos points to China and Russia’s joint statement in October that raised concerns about the dual-use aspects of the United States’ and its allies’ military biological activities. 

The situation becomes even more complicated when you consider the case of the coronavirus pandemic, which many Americans have come to regard as the ultimate example of dual use, subscribing to the notion that it was either deliberately weaponized or accidentally released from a Wuhan laboratory experimenting on bat viruses. From the beginning of the pandemic, this has created a sideshow of bluster, with accusations lobbed back and forth over the Pacific.

A paparazzi photo of Charles Lieber, formerly of Harvard University.
Jan. 30, 2020, Harvard University professor Charles Lieber leaves federal court in Boston. AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File

Other threats are indisputable. The U.S. was apparently caught off guard by China’s launch of two hypersonic weapons this summer. Lentzos urges perspective about current biological threats: “Yes, we should take some of these threats seriously. I don’t think we should hype them. They’re not the biggest threats we’re facing right now.” Nuclear weapons and accidents, the climate crisis, and hostilities in the South China Sea are all more worrying, she adds. 

At a biotech security conference at the Texas Medical Center in 2019, FBI agents warned that spies are “targeting the entire biotechnology sector” and that stolen genetic data could be weaponized to target individuals or minorities. In a recent interview with CBS, Ed You, supervisory special agent at the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction division, spelled out various threats that fall outside the catastrophic scenario of a bioweapons attack. These included the sweeping statement that falling behind China in gene tech could make the United States “health care crack addicts,” unable to provide for themselves medical treatments aggressively sold to them by China’s presumably more advanced future pharmacogenomics sector. 

Lentzos rejects a blanket approach to securitize data and IP across the board and says, “Proper justifications and clarity on boundaries is key.” What remains of the question is whether—and how far—losing technological superiority represents a national security risk, with rhetoric from some in the intelligence community often suggesting that any advance in Chinese capabilities represents a threat to the United States. FBI veteran German advocates for resolving the bureau’s current freewheeling conflation between national security concerns with concerns about economic competition with China, and “more narrowly defining what are the important industries that need some increased protection provided by the federal government”—the so-called “small yard, high fence” approach. “If somebody steals an idea from an American company about how to make a particular toy that’s popular, yes, that’s a problem, but that’s not like stealing nuclear secrets,” says German. 

A U.S. industrial policy?

There has not yet been any sign that Biden plans to reverse the framing or scope of the China Initiative he inherited. But Lewis says there has been some détente, with the Department of Justice planning to review individual cases and the administration dialing back China-threat rhetoric. There is hope for a more thorough re-appraisal of the current strategy following the confirmation on November 1 of experienced prosecutor Matt Olsen, who led the Obama-era review that explored closing the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, to serve as head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division.

Nevertheless, support is growing for rolling back the China Initiative. Former U.S. attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling, who prosecuted Harvard professor Charles Leiber, told the Washington Post that he believes the Initiative has achieved one goal of deterrence by raising academic awareness and that pursuing grant fraud is nearing the overkill stage. “If I were in the department today,” said Lelling, who is now in private practice at Jones Day law firm in Boston, “I’d tell the field, ‘OK, slow down on new cases. Let’s set the bar higher now.’” 

For Lewis and German, raising the bar on prosecutions is not enough. They say bias can’t be corrected by anything less than scrapping the Initiative altogether and allowing the Department of Justice to get back to picking cases on their merits. But more still will be required for that. Critics want broader attempts to increase the DOJ’s diversity and China expertise and Congressman Ted Lieu has demanded the Department initiate implicit bias training. MIT Vice President for Research Maria Zuber, who was selected as co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in January, has given a list of recommendations—including clarifying reporting guidelines across government agencies and rules around foreign talent programs. There is broad agreement on the need to standardize such disclosures, which Eric Lander, the President’s science advisor, has made a priority

“We in the United States often forgot that was our model because we drank our own bullshit Kool-Aid.”

Far greater transparency in the foreign investment bureaucracy is needed too. “The United States has begun contesting Chinese actions—for example, by using CFIUS to reduce IP transfers—without necessarily developing a framework for understanding the contest, nor for choosing goals, nor for developing strategies and tactics to achieve those goals,” writes Carlson and Wehbring, the Johns Hopkins scientists. 

Critics and supporters of both the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States and the China Initiative want to resolve a more fundamental question: Does the United States have an industrial strategy? This question offers more than just hope of remedying the failings of the Trump era, but to orient a route towards future growth. Metzl, who rejects the idea that we are entering a new cold war with China, nevertheless says there are vital lessons to learn from the earlier one with the Soviet Union. 

He proposes a new “Vannevar Bush model,” recalling the first presidential science advisor whose 1945 “Science, The Endless Frontier” essay championed the modern model of funding basic science research to drive innovation, which led to the creation of the National Science Foundation, poured newfound fundamental research funding into agencies across the federal government, enshrined the post-war partnership between government, academia, and industry, and gave us spaceflight, GPS, and computers. “It was a great model,” says Metzl. “And we in the United States often forgot that was our model because we drank our own bullshit Kool-Aid of telling ourselves ‘Oh, no, the government never did anything! It was a bunch of people in their garages!’”

Biden’s promises to Build Back Better—both during the campaign and in policy proposals since—have flirted with a limited government role in directing industry, research, and development. Already in 2021, the Senate passed the Innovation and Competition Act (formerly known, following Bush, as the Endless Frontier Act) to authorize $250 billion to boost U.S. semiconductor production, biotech, artificial intelligence competitiveness, with an eye toward China. 

Commentators noted how closely Endless Frontier followed the priorities laid out in Made in China 2025. Under President Biden, will the United States rediscover an appetite for state-led Vannevar Bush-like investment in basic science research far removed from militarized applications—that exact sort of wide-reaching innovation funding of old that made the U.S. the leader in science and tech in the first place? Or will the Biden Administration retreat into a cautious tit-for-tat form of funding with an eye on countering China? 

Speaking before Congress in October, Zuber warned that the U.S. is “likely to trip ourselves up if we devote too much of our attention instead to looking over our shoulder at our competitors” and that “U.S. competitiveness depends less on defensive measures than on what we do to strengthen our own capabilities.” Or as MIT President Rafael Reif says, “The real crisis in U.S. science and technology will be when we have nothing worth stealing.”

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