Q&A: Race & Ethnicity in Science Research – A Conversation With Professor Jenny Lee

Over the past years, restrictions and fear-mongering imposed by the U.S. government on international exchange with China have sent a chill amongst American scientists and researchers, in particular targeting those of Chinese descent. Committee of 100 and the University of Arizona on June 23, announced a new joint-research project designed to understand how research and academics have been affected by these limitations. We spoke with the project’s lead researcher, Professor Jenny J. Lee, faculty member of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona College of Education. We asked Professor Lee for her point of view on the goals of this joint-research project and her expectations for the Chinese American and AAPI scientific communities.

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Committee of 100: What triggered the idea for this joint research project with Committee of 100? 

Professor Lee: The collaboration began when I came across Committee of 100’s public statement against the racial profiling of Chinese scientists, which helped to inform my published research on U.S.-China collaborations. The major finding across several of my studies with John Haupt is that the U.S. and China are key international partners when it comes to contributing to the world’s scientific knowledge. Yet, ongoing suspicions about China are making such partnerships increasingly difficult. Thus, the president of Committee of 100, Zhengyu Huang, and I discussed how we might join forces to address this matter empirically.

Committee of 100:   What do you hope to learn from the research? 

Professor Lee: The purpose of this research is to investigate U.S. university scientists’ experiences and opinions about collaborating with Chinese scientists. The primary goal of this research is to provide a deeper understanding of US-China scientific collaborations from first-hand accounts. A secondary goal is to uncover the extent of neo-racism that might be negatively affecting the experiences of Chinese American scientists in the U.S. Ultimately, the study aims to utilize the findings to promote positive scholarly interactions between the two countries.

Committee of 100:     According to a recent Committee of 100 study (From Foundations to Frontiers), since the 1950s, scientists of Chinese descent working in the U.S. have had to contend with suspicion of and being charged with spying for China. What do you expect the new research to shed light on those affected in the scientific community?

Professor Lee: We (I, along with Xiaojie Li at the University of Arizona) hope that the new research will inform the public about scientists’ views and direct experiences with the DoJ’s China Initiative. While discrimination against the Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) community is nothing new, we hope to provide empirical data that demonstrates the effects of the China Initiative on scientists’ willingness and ability to collaborate with China. My previous study with Haupt found that the US has more to lose than gain in cutting ties with China. This research is especially important given the pressing need to address global challenges together, such as on Covid-19. The findings will be shared with policymakers and institutional leaders to inform future guidelines.

Committee of 100:  Last year in November, you published an essay titled “Neo-racism and the Criminalization of China”. The essay argues that neo-racism undermines the U.S.’s role as a global leader in higher education. Can you elaborate on why neo-racist barriers must be called out and addressed, specifically in higher education and science studies?

Professor Lee: Neo-racism goes beyond traditional racism to include nationalism in the globalizing world. Applied to the current case, Chinese scientists are unfairly being singled out and targeted as a ‘threat’ when the vast majority are simply seeking better professional opportunities, networks, and resources that might be lacking in their home country. The US also hugely benefits from China, a major supplier of international students and scientific talent. By mistreating and preventing Chinese scientists and students from working alongside the U.S., they can easily go abroad elsewhere.

Committee of 100:  2020 was a tough year for all – but especially the Chinese Americans and Asian Americans. How do APIDAs utilize this moment as an opportunity for greater inclusion and equality?

Professor Lee: Yes, 2020 was tough but it also makes clear that the APIDA community is strong, united, and will not be silent when there is injustice. The passing of the anti-Asian hate crimes bill was a significant step and a demonstration of overwhelming bipartisan support for our community. But more work obviously needs to be done to prevent the scapegoating, bias, and mistreatment of Chinese immigrants, Chinese Americans, and APIDA members overall. This project seeks to move beyond the political rhetoric and address such matters with hard evidence.

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