The consequences of geopolitics on science

One of the hallmarks of academic research has long been its openness.

Science and intellectual exchange have not been confined by national borders. Few areas of inquiry have been off limits, and discoveries have only been walled off when national security was at stake.

But that, as I write in my latest piece for The Chronicle, may be changing. New technologies are blurring the lines between scholarly and sensitive research. The geopolitical clashes between China and the West and the centrality of innovation to 21st-century global power may be cooling international engagement. Could this mean the end of global open science and research?

In a paper released this week, a group of researchers from the University of California at San Diego document the consequences of one instance of academic disengagement, examining the impact of the China Initiative, the Trump administration’s. investigation of academic and economic espionage, on research collaborations between the United States and China.

They found that the productivity of researchers in the life sciences with longstanding ties to China has declined since 2018, when the initiative started, as compared with colleagues who conducted joint research with countries other than China. The drop was actually more substantial in the quality, rather than the quantity, of research. Publication citations for the scientists with China collaborations have fallen 7.2 percent over that time, the UCSD researchers found.

The impact was felt across institutions, not just by academics at universities that had been the focus of China Initiative cases. The government’s inquiry affected both scientists of Asian and non-Asian descent, although when the researchers looked specifically at publications funded by the National Institutes of Health, they found that Asian scientists had been more adversely affected. (In general, China Initiative cases have focused on academics who receive federal grants.)

Likewise, they found that while research output was depressed across the board, publication declines were more pronounced in fields in which NIH funding is more important or in which there is extensive collaboration with China.

“These patterns further support that our findings are driven by U.S.-China tensions,” the researchers conclude.

In an interview, Ruixue Jia, an associate professor of global policy and strategy at UCSD, called the impact “a general phenomenon.”

“There seems to be a much broader chilling effect,” she said.

Jia and her colleagues also said their study may be underestimating the chill because of its relatively short time horizon. Scientists are still wrapping up existing projects, but from interviews with academics that complemented their quantitative analysis, the researchers found that many were hesitant to begin new collaborations with longtime Chinese colleagues. That means the impact could worsen if scrutiny of work with China continues.

Margaret E. Roberts, an associate professor of political science and another co-author, said some scientists had to “reorient their research.”

“This is like a shock to people’s research agenda. That’s something we’d like to look into more, how it impacts innovation and ideas and creativity.”

And while scientific output in both China and the United States was affected, the declines were greater closer to home, the researchers found. “It seems that the U.S. is more sensitive to this, rather than the China side,” Jia said. “So if the policy aim is to hurt China more, we find something opposite.”

Government extends online education for international students

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced that it will extend policy guidance put in place at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic to allow international students greater flexibility to take online or hybrid courses through the 2022-23 academic year.

Under the special policy, students who were enrolled in American colleges at the time of the initial outbreak, in March 2020, can continue to take all classes online and maintain their visa status. Those whose studies began since the start of the pandemic will be permitted to take a mix of in-person and online courses. (College policy must also allow online or hybrid instruction.)

Before the public-health crisis, international students faced a strict limit on the number of online courses they could take: just one per semester.

Most colleges have returned to in-person or hybrid learning, so it’s unlikely that many international students are enrolled in classes fully online. Still, it is notable that the department opted to pre-emptively extend the policy for a full academic year. Officials could have returned to enforcement of the more restrictive regulations, which would have left colleges and students uncertain about how the government would respond to future Covid outbreaks.

The decision, made well in advance of the new school year, stands in contrast to the Trump administration’s approach. Although that administration quickly moved to relax in-person learning requirements when college campuses closed, officials abruptly reversed course in July 2020, announcing without warning that international students would have to go back into the classroom to keep their visas. Colleges scrambled to find enough face-to-face courses, and international students had a tough decision: risk their health — or deportation. Led by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, colleges sued, and within days, the Trump administration rescinded the decision.

With the updated guidance, this will be the fourth academic year, in full or in part, in which international students and their institutions have been given broader discretion to enroll in online courses. Could this become the new normal?

In other pandemic news, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its Covid advisory system for international travel, removing all countries from Level 4. The health agency said it would reserve that highest travel alert for “special circumstances” such as rapidly escalating or extremely high case counts, the emergence of infectious new variants, or the collapse of local health-care infrastructure. The Washington Post reports that 90 countries had been at Level 4 before the shift.

The change in the travel warning system may allow colleges and study-abroad providers to send more students to more places. That’s because many institutional travel policies are tied to federal travel alerts. The U.S. State Department’s advisory system factors in the CDC’s health-related warnings, as well as threats like terrorism and national disasters.

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Why getting students’ names right matters

Before a word of introduction had been spoken, Yi Xuen Tay, a graduate student from Malaysia at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, could feel her anxiety growing.

How badly would the person she was meeting stumble over pronouncing her name, which is Mandarin Chinese? Would they try to get it right or avoid using it at all? Shorten it to just the first of the two Chinese characters, Yi, that make up her first name?

“I could see the concern in their eyes, and I’d feel bad that my name was so hard,” Yi Xuen said.

So she’d make it easy for them. Her last name was English sounding, “like Taylor Swift without the '-lor.’” When she met someone new, she’d say, “Feel free to just call me Tay.”

Getting a student’s name wrong, or not even trying to pronounce it correctly, can signal a lack of respect and make the student feel uncomfortable and unwelcome on campus. It can be, as my colleague Fernanda Zamudio-Suarez writes in the Race on Campus newsletter, a microaggression.

Yet, the experience is a common one for international students. And the onus is often on them to manage the linguistic discomfort of their American classmates and even their professors.

As a young girl studying English in China, Yuezhong Zheng’s Western teachers would ask if she had an English name. So she chose “April,” plucked from a now-forgotten rom-com.

“Now that I think back on it, that’s a problem. That’s neocolonialism right there,” said Yuezhong, who earned degrees from William & Mary and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. “But growing up, it was the norm.”

The international students I spoke with said they didn’t expect people to always pronounce their names perfectly — many said they struggled with certain sounds that weren’t found in their own native tongues. Too often, though, others didn’t even try to get their names right. Americans’ desire to avoid embarrassment can leave international students feeling excluded.

Yi Xuen, the Nebraska student, said all the Zoom sessions of the past two years had made the situation worse, because when people saw her name spelled out, she felt it increased their stress about getting it wrong. But her classmate Meena Pannirselvam, who is also from Malaysia, said she liked the ability to be able to include the Tamil characters and pronunciation of her name in her chyron on screen. Doing so has sparked others’ interest.

“When people ask about the significance of my name, it means a lot,” she said, “because it means they see me.”

Many students have begun to use technology to proactively help people learn their names. Apps like Namedrop and NameCoach let them embed recordings of their name into their email signatures and even share a bit of background about their name.

Yi Xuen has begun to “reclaim” her name, no longer introducing herself as Tay. And Yuezhong has dropped April. “I realized I don’t have to have an English name to make it easier,” she said. “I feel more connected to, and more proud of, who I am.”

So what can educators do? I got many great suggestions, and here are just a few:

  • Owen Silverman Andrews, an instructional specialist at Anne Arundel Community College, in Maryland, said he uses name-identification software in his own signature. “The message for students and colleagues is that no name is normative in a multilingual society,” he wrote. “By sharing the pronunciation of my name (I get called Andrew about once a week in emails, by the way), I remove an excuse to mispronounce anyone’s.”
  • Several institutions, including Kent State and Temple Universities have begun workshops for faculty and staff members to help them pronounce international students’ names.
  • Hoa Bui runs a program to help international students prepare for studying in the United States. She tries to give her students “social, historical, and generational context,” such as how some immigrant parents deliberately give their children “American” names. “I emphasize to my students they can make up their own minds about their name,” she said.
  • And many professors said they devoted time in initial class sessions to learning students’ names: introducing themselves individually to students, noting names phonetically in their class rolls, and inviting their students to record how they’d like to be addressed in their learning-management systems. Christine Lombardo-Zaun, chair of business at Cedar Crest College, makes it a point to greet all of her students, many of whom are from Saudi Arabia, in every class by name.

Around the globe

The U.S. government will offer special student relief to international students from Ukraine and Sudan who are experiencing economic hardship because of crises in their home countries.

The State Department may not be able to cover the costs of passport and visa issuance, and other consular services, if revenues do not quickly rebound to pre-pandemic levels, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The United States and India will establish a working group on skills training and education that will bring universities together to develop more research and exchange programs and to increase the number of international students from India studying at American colleges, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced.

Here’s why a federal judge may be taking a second look at one China Initiative conviction.

A new survey of prospective business students from around the globe found that while business schools in Western Europe and the United States remain attractive, more candidates are choosing to study in their home countries.

Hong Kong Polytechnic University has cut ties with its student union, the latest college there to do so amid a crackdown on student dissent.

Israel will offer incentives to try to persuade faculty members teaching at foreign universities to return home to help remedy a deficit of professors in the sciences.

One in four first-year students at Dutch universities is now international, but the rapid enrollment increases have led some institutional leaders to worry about student quality.

American universities dominated the new QS World University Rankings by discipline.

And finally …

For the Bootstraps podcast, produced in conjunction with the journalism nonprofit Open Campus, Jeffrey R. Young of EdSurge, takes a deep dive into the troubled origins of the Rhodes Scholarship and asks what kinds of messages are sent by prestigious fellowships, like the Rhodes and the Fulbright, to first-gen students and those from socioeconomic or racial backgrounds not typically represented among their recipients.

“In my view, having a conversation about the history of Cecil Rhodes is no different than confronting the history of Confederate statues on college campuses or names on buildings that represent people who no longer reflect our values,” one campus administrator tells Jeff.

As a bonus, I’m now way smarter about diamonds than before I tuned in!

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