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Human Rights Watch  
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Free Academic Exchange

Letter to the Editor: We would like to expand on “Amid Tensions with China, US Emphasizes Research Security Rules” (C&EN, Sept. 30, page 36), as this topic is relevant to chemists.

Ethnic profiling of Chinese scientists in the US was a subject of the National Civic Leadership Forum Sept. 15–18, a nonpartisan event for the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. There have been about 240 prosecutions and over 1,000 investigations since the Economic Espionage Act (EEA) was enacted in 1996.

Findings show that people with Asian names are indicted more, dismissed more, and when convicted, punished about twice as severely in EEA cases (see “Prosecuting Chinese ‘Spies’: An Empirical Analysis of the Economic Espionage Act,” Cardoza Law Review, 2018). Scientists wrongfully accused of espionage can have their reputations, families, and careers ruined. Here, we come to the defense of Chinese American scientists and call for a better balance of security, but not at the expense of civil liberties.

US universities encouraged exchanges and collaborations with Chinese universities until a few years ago. Currently, they are not encouraged and in some cases deemed criminal. Ethnic profiling is not only illegal but also counterproductive. Free academic exchange between scientists in the US and China is crucial for discoveries to be made that will in turn benefit the US.

This pattern of targeting Chinese scientists is not new. Cases include those of Wen Ho Lee, Sherry Chen, Xiaoxing Xi, and Franklin Tao. Ethnic Chinese scientists have been terminated or forced to resign or retire from MD Anderson Cancer Center and Emory University.

On Sept. 10, we at the Committee of Concerned Scientists posted “Should the United States Hide Its Cancer Research from China?” We explain that “the idea that science innovations flow one way from the U.S. to China, promulgated in some circles of the U.S. government, is completely outdated. It has led to human rights abuses and is negatively affecting U.S. universities and research centers.” We indicate that the US government should recognize that China is a major source of science innovations and a force in research.

Chemists should speak up on countering ethnic profiling and unwarranted investigations of Chinese scientists in the US. Such actions by our government should cease. These issues facing ethnic Chinese scientists in the US are in need of vocal condemnation, as they often lack due process. It is important that chemists become involved in this civic engagement.
See:  Chemical & Engineering News (Nov. 9, 2019, 97(44))

By Alexander Greer and Eugene Chudnovsky
New York City


Ethnochemistry and Human Rights

Any effort where drugs, supplements, and other high-value products have been developed as an outgrowth of ethnochemical knowledge should acknowledge the community from which the knowledge originated. This community should receive some form of reciprocal gain. Such reciprocity could be in the form of technology transfer and training, and, in the event that a compound is successfully commercialized, royalty payments. This is a crucial topic that needs to be discussed among chemists. A key point is that recently the United Nations General Assembly has adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples [1], which includes the right to self-determination. We encourage chemists to recognize and defend this right.

The relationship between science and the human rights of indigenous groups has often been a difficult one [2], with the history of drug discovery being particularly problematic. Ethnochemical development can be viewed as a two-step process: one is the use of indigenous knowledge as a starting point for chemicals as leads. The second is advancing the chemical leads by further testing and patenting of them. As chemists, we remember the second, but usually fail to recognize the importance of the first.

Continued. To read full letter, see: Chem. Biodivers 2013, 10, 1724-1728.

By Inna Abramova and Alexander Greer
Brooklyn, N.Y.


Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples

Letter to the Editor: In connection with Linda Wang’s “Bridging Cultures” article reporting on the AAAS Science & Human Rights Coalition meeting, I found the meeting to be useful (C&EN, Feb. 13, page 35). But just a few of the 150 participants were chemists. The meeting emphasized that few scientists doing biomedical research consider traditional knowledge as intellectual property (IP) that should be protected and its benefits shared. That pharma sometimes comes into indigenous communities to gain empirical knowledge of decades-old traditional remedies and leaves to do further research and patent it is striking. Topics connecting bioprospecting with protecting IP rights of indigenous groups are by and large absent in ACS journals. One example is aspirin, which came from traditional knowledge as a starting point. Wang’s article mentioned the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007 for greater self-determination but did not suggest possible solutions. The declaration may lead to more equitable outcomes with regard to IP, but according to Megan Bang of the University of Washington, many injustices remain institutionalized and invisible. Possible solutions include applying the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice policy, or a nongovernmental organization could conduct negotiations with indigenous groups, with strategies comparable to the fair-trade movement, in which the NGO labels goods as being produced in a way that is both socially and environmentally responsible. No one would argue that protecting the IP rights to medicines associated with indigenous groups is a difficult task, and the cause may need a champion. Chemists could have a role in such a movement. Joshua Rosenthal of the National Institutes of Health’s Fogarty International Center described a case 11 years ago, a rare instance where drug discovery researchers tried to include IP rights for local indigenous groups in Chiapas, Mexico. But the arrangement fell apart (disagreements among various group representatives), probably to the misfortune of all involved (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/414685a). Despite this outcome, chemists can embrace such responsibilities, seeking an enlightened view against biopiracy and patents that take indigenous knowledge, and instead seek protection and reciprocity.

See: C&EN (Mar. 26, 2012, 90(13),6)

Alexander Greer
Brooklyn, N.Y.



Misguided and Illegal Boycott


We wish to alert ACS members to a worrisome development: More than 190 faculty members and student groups at U.S. colleges have endorsed a boycott of Israeli academics. The group promoting the boycott calls itself “U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel.” We are very concerned about this movement (both of us sit on the board of the Committee of Concerned Scientists). This action could adversely affect Israeli scientists by denying them access to conferences, research, and jobs in the U.S.

The movement claims to be on the side of morality due to the recent military actions in the Gaza Strip and seeks to punish Israeli scientists for not renouncing the actions of their government. The criticism of Israeli politics is coupled (disturbingly) with scientific professional activities.

The rationale behind the boycott is equivalent to responding to the current war in Iraq by limiting U.S. scientists in their professional activities and capacities to do science. Boycott promoters adopt the language of apartheid policies in South Africa to describe their position, which in our opinion should be viewed as bigoted logic.

But the boycott is not just misguided, it is also illegal. Any U.S. college that tolerates a boycott of Israeli academics may be creating a hostile work environment based on national origin for the employees it does have. Other actions that hinder Israeli scientists from doing science, such as exclusion from conferences, could jeopardize the federal financial assistance those institutions receive and be subject to state and local antidiscrimination laws. There is an insidious nature to the proposed boycott, quite similar to what emerged in the U.K. several years ago. A guide upholding the universality of science was published a few years ago (Nature 2003, 421, 314).

Alexander Greer
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Zafra Lerman
Chicago, IL

See: Chemical & Engineering News (April 27, 2009, 87(38))