Once Again, China Treated As Bogeyman

Today’s Washington Post ran a piece in what is becoming an increasing popular genre: “China is overtaking the U.S. in science research.” I’ve argued that such claims are vastly overblown, made by those in the U.S. with vested interests and a sensationalism-hungry American press. Yet there are legitimate questions raised here that sorely need a national conversation.

The article of course cites AI (itself a sensationalist term)  an example, one that I debunked here a few weeks ago. And another perennial sensationalist favorite, supercomputers, is cited as well. I’ve debunked that one too. Actually, that example is even worse: In the AI case, at least the field is important, even if the claim of impending Chinese superiority is unwarranted, while bragging about having the world’s largest supercomputer is really akin to Trump and Kim arguing who has the larger “button.”

That said, though, there is absolutely no question that China is offering a much better deal to top researchers than is the U.S. — high salaries, mind-boggling signing bonuses, and most importantly, guaranteed research funding. The article greatly errs, though, in asserting that the U.S. is simply not allocating enough resources to STEM. Ironically, the problem is that we are overdoing it.

We are producing too many PhDs. The total amount of U.S. government research funding has been  generous over the years, but is being spread out among a larger and larger pool of researchers. It has thus become more and more difficult — a better word would be agonizing — for researchers at U.S. universities to secure funding.

The problem is compounded further by the increasing number of foreign students. A 1989 internal report in the National Science Foundation, one of the two main STEM funders in the U.S., actually advocated bringing in more foreign students, on the grounds of costs savings, and noted that as the foreign students flooded the labor market, fewer domestic students would pursue PhDs, further bringing down salaries and thus making doctoral study even less attractive, and so on, a vicious circle (though a virtuous one from NSF’s point of view, as they “get more bang for the buck” in their research funding).

Now “they” are warning that the foreign students might go home after their study here, or not come here in the first place. I think that warning too is overblown, but really folks, they can’t have it both ways.

In other words, our national STEM policy has been just plain wrongheaded for years, in many respects. We need to have a national, rational, vested-interests-free-zone discussion of just what it is that we want. I would pose the following questions as among those that urgently need discussion:

  • How important do we really consider STEM research, both fundamental and applied?
  • Do we want quality research (American tradition) or merely quantity (China’s current strategy)?
  • Is the policy of the last 30 years, which has the direct effect of discouraging talented U.S. students from pursuing careers in STEM research, acceptable? (And if not, why have we allowed it?)

I won’t hold my breath waiting for such a discussion, though.

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37 thoughts on “Once Again, China Treated As Bogeyman

  1. If I recall correctly ARPA/DARPA was very effective at directing research, although maybe too much on military as opposed to basic research. What you describe, spreading the money around, would dilute research focus, it would seem.

    The issue of too many phds due to NSF policy brings into question the objective here: cheap phds or innovative research to improve the US. It sounds like part of the problem may be bureaucratic self-perpetuation, a not uncommon condition in Washington. The question always seems to be: where’s the long-range planning for defined national objectives? The Chinese have an advantage there.

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    • In CS, American PHDs are usually not that impressive because they lack real experience in the trenches. Their years spent in school, not solving real problems with paying customers, can be painfully obvious in the private sector. Foreign PHDs are a mixed bag with China and India being on my “fakers” list.

      I recently watched a govt hearing on quantum computing. The researchers were begging congress for funding, based almost entirely on the “China is doing it too” argument. One PHD had a company doing research but couldn’t explain it, his experience seem to be in raising money. The other two knew quantum theory but couldn’t explain it well either. It was a give us some money and trust us session.

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      • I watched the hearing too. Though I was pleased to see that one of the witnesses was a former student of mine, I don’t think any of them did a very good job in getting their point across.

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  2. I can’t speak to quality in research, it’s pretty rare to start with, isn’t it? But I can speak to quality in commercial STEM hiring, and in general quality is not just disregarded it is very nearly forbidden. STEM salaried jobs want the mediocre. If you are much above the 60th percentile the only way to “monetize” your quality is to start your own business

    Now this is not exactly news, I was heavily warned about this when I was graduating in the 1970s. And for that matter is it virtually an American and capitalist tradition going back to the eighteenth century – entrepreneurialism has always been the escape hatch.

    So here’s the nut – how will this work out in China? I gather they do NOT have the kind of classic entrepreneurial escape hatch that the US has traditionally had. Maybe the can make a big lab work, as has virtually never been true in the US, certainly not in the last thirty years (wait, aren’t Google and others “big labs” that work? not in basic science, I will argue no they are not, Amazon? Not really. Of course Bell Labs collapsed, IBM is a ghost, Microsoft’s inventions run along the lines of Bob the talking paper clip, …)

    So I’m going to remain neutral at this point on China’s likelihood of overtaking the US in basic science. If nothing else money talks, and they are spending a lot of it these days.

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      • Re: hand wringing
        Mentions already made during Obama administration: decline in productivity, what exactly are the long term unemployed doing, and innovation in STEM tanking. His former economic advisor now asking, if we’re at full employment, then why are we still in wage stagnation. To which I can only say, Ohh noooo, here comes the repercussions of years of bad policy.

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      • They are counting the papers published by their US faculty member among their production. When the faculty member is an “editor” of a journal, how many of his affiliated papers are likely to be rejected? I have even seen the undergraduate (at a different university) child of the faculty member included among the authors.

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          • There is a lot of “interesting” going on.

            In this state the universities audit themselves and are not subject to review by the state’s offices of auditor and attorney general. If there is fraud it must be prosecuted by the DA and reviewed by a county grand jury When the county population is 260K and the city population is 110K and the university enrollment is 24K, what is really likely to happen.

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    • I expect there (China), like here currently, many a person will find they’re job immobilized due labor glut. China, unlike current US, has a ways to go before achieving the broad monopoly they seek, so they can up their goals, in market and in technology, for quite a while before hitting the wall.
      I can only say best of luck to them, as I’d like to see innovation supported … somewhere.

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  3. At a university in my state I have found at least 5 full time faculty members also listed as faculty members (not identified as adjuncts or visiting but regular status) at Chinese universities. Publications attributing funding to US grants list the Chinese university as the author’s first affiliation. Tracking foreign travel shows detours to the location of the affiliated universities charged to the US university paid travel reimbursements.

    There is also publication padding where the individual is added to a paper when the paper acknowledges only Chinese funding and all other authors are affiliated with Chinese universities. Some are even attributed to US grants that begin after the publication date of the paper while there is no mention of the US grant in the acknowledgments. Chinese authors who have not been present in the US lab to contribute to the research effort are also listed on publications from US based research. Some of the projects have strict foreign travel restrictions.

    Others are listed of making presentations on DOD funded research; there are no corresponding travel claims at the university so there is no way to determine who sponsored the trip.

    Some are even collecting state funds supposedly targeting economic development in the state.

    I have not found this occurring with individuals collaborating with researchers in countries other than China to date. While it may be occurring elsewhere, the information I have on these individuals – all publicly available, should be of interest to those concerned with grant fraud and intellectual property theft. I have 10s of thousands of pages of documents both printed and electronic from my review of these activities.

    No one seems to care even though some of the individuals have results with potentially economically viable products of significance to the US. People at the state agency making the funding decisions seem happy to throw money at faculty researchers and their for-profit companies without verifying their past performance or their collaborations abroad.

    I am weary trying to get people to listen.

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    • Wow, I had no idea there was such “double-dipping” going on, with researchers collecting from both U.S. and Chinese funding sources — openly, not just under the table. I wonder how much of that research has potential military applications. Thanks for the info.

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      • Some of the research is funded as “in the interest of national security” in the research summaries. I have found presentations of projects funded by the Missile Defense Agency on lasers, patent owned by government on a project from JPL, and numerous other DOD, NSF, NASA, DOE, NIH, and Agriculture projects.

        It is not just China. A state agency is funding drone research by an Iranian owned company employing an Iranian on H1B and by a Syrian owned company employing Syrian engineers living in Turkey as wekk as in the US on student visas. What could possibly go wrong 😦

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          • I know some personally. In one instance there is a labor certification to the company; there is only one full time employee other than a US citizen. This is relatively minor compared to the other except for other unexpected actions elsewhere. In some instances there have been funding requests to a state agency which are for salaries for interns. Since the agency, researchers and interns are public about the results, it is possible to track after the fact the person to the company to the award, …

            Some have a history of being international students who may now be citizens. They have been very public about their former university relationships and use that to validate their credentials. Some self report and/or are listed on both corporate and university websites – often with overlapping timeframes. Many self report as living in Turkey as Syrian refugees while working for a US company. The company’s self-reported headcount in a video interview with a state agency is consistent with that possibility. Their public internet presence is in both English and Arabic mixed.

            I ran across this web of relationships initially while following another faculty member (making presentations on fed funded research in China) to a company. Beginning with that company, I have followed the trail for nearly 5 years via SEC filings, FOIA equivalents to university and state agencies, corporate websites, government agency websites, news articles and videos in which principals were interviewed, social media posts, personal communications, … This relationship has cost state taxpayers hundreds of thousands of debt converted to now worthless stock in the company. When a couple has obtained over a million in state grants requiring matching funds and statements that contradict documented performance and using state resources at below fair market rates or without a contract allowing it to do so, I am going to be watching and wondering.

            Some university travel documents (available via FOIAs) require a traveler’s citizenship/immigration status.
            Many public bios on the university website list birthplace. Other public financial reports list reimbursements for the visa priority processing fees; for a new junior faculty member, this is likely to be for an H-1B. University paid travel reimbursement forms and receipts, credit card statements and cell phone records are also publicly available as open records. These can include visa fees. Some HR records are also public via FOIAs.

            One interesting quirk is that one researcher registered as a sole proprietorship rather than an LLC or corporation so that rather than an EIN number on some grant award announcements, his social security number is the reference reported. His company has received hundreds of thousands in awards over time and he saves about $150 per year in corporate registration fees.

            Another new quirk is that foreign credit card spending can be followed because the international transaction fee is posted separately. A lot of interesting things can be discovered in travel reimbursements (like international hotel reservations in a child’s name paid by travel card, …)

            Then there are the US based schemes that also have me fuming, but those are for another time.
            .

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          • I should have added that I do not understand the reason for having the citizenship/visa status on the form. Then again, much of what has and continues to occur defies logic.

            It amazes me that people are in violation of licensing requirements specified in the statutes yet are able to obtain state funding to engage in the profession requiring licensing.

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      • The best results are going to the Inspector General of the agency involved (except for NIH which doesn’t seem to care about any fraud). Department of Education is supposedly responsible for systemic university issues. The problem is proving systemic.

        I have found a company with $2.7 million in federal grants that had been suspended by the state for failing to pay taxes. I did manage to get that solved by providing proof that the company was in tax trouble and asking the agency to suspend payments on the awards until the company was legally licensed to operate. It is no longer listed as being in the state even though the founder and tech person is still employed by the university.

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    • “I am weary trying to get people to listen.”
      Possibly the person you’re looking for is Joseph Morosco, Assistant Director, Office of the National Intelligence Manager for Counterintelligence, National Counterintelligence and Security Center.
      Their job is a sharp eye on the fine line you cite.

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  4. It’s an interesting article. One thing it neglects to explain is that China’s success arose from ignoring the “expert” advice of free market economists.

    Also, I agree with you about the extraordinary contradictions of the policy establishment. When offshoring was being debated, that group argued that sending work offshore was wonderful because it enhanced trade and “enlarged the pie.” Now it’s apparently a problem for them.

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    • The US multinationals tend to be naive when they go globe trekking. In this case, they fully expected they’d have their own and/or US muscle to strong arm China. IP for instance. Currency manipulation for instance. Market dominance in China for instance. China is not India.

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  5. Ph.D. salaries might be nearly double (similar to top MBA or Law School graduates) if it weren’t for that 30 years policy (somewhat longer really) of bringing in large numbers of foreign Ph.D. students and graduates. That would have come out of corporate profits though is the problem – policy favors financial capital over knowledge capital – a fact that flows from the power of corporate lobbies.

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  6. China may very well give the US industries a good spanking with their “One Belt” policies, but then I can only say they brought it on themselves.
    I’ve a single big beef with research grants – and that is the main beneficiary of it is industry, with no strings attached. I equate that to corporate welfare.
    US will not be immigrating its way out of the corner it boxed itself into. Given the billions on the other side of the planet, it’s absurd to claim US will brain drain or even slow the rise of China. As for suppressing wage rates here, so goes their high priced consumer market. No discretionary income, no discretionary spending. And remittances hasten the race to the bottom.

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    • I am angry about federal and state funded research benefiting the for-profit company owned by the PI or a family member. I have found a state university issuing research contracts using the award funds to the company for research which actually performed at the university by the faculty member and his students.

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  7. I recall back in the 1980’s when U.S. research began to tilt away from “basic” (deep questions with no obvious application) to “applied” (let’s research something we can monetize) research. Also, a lot of the gusto for energy and weapons research seemed to fade away somewhat after the Cold War ended. As a result, many corporations have been “eating their seed corn” by focusing on rejuvenating existing technologies but not advancing things with a totally new approach.

    One example might be to compare cellphone advancements vs. road paving advancements. Cellphones are constantly getting more and more features, more memory, faster speed, and longer battery life, and today’s “low-end” phones are available at Dollar General but completely outclass expensive phones from 10 years ago. In contrast, road paving suffers from no real improvement in areas like materials science, durability, stability under temperature/water/ice cycles, etc. I see roads recently paved and needing patching in just a few months. Many roads need a complete re-pave after just 4 or 5 years. It seems like a few “hot” ready-for-retail industries soak up most of the research resources, and other fields that could benefit from basic research make little or no progress for decades.

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  8. The F1 student and J1 scholar visas need to be scrapped ASAP, and all current holders deported. It will greatly reduce cheap labor for the “Intels”, IP theft, and the overproduction of PhD’s. Then perhaps Americans will find grad school and research attractive again with the significant increase in stipends.

    People need to get massively activist about this, and start calling representatives. Get on Fox and Friends and convince President Trump to apply 8 U.S. Code § 1182 (f) against foreign students and researchers.

    “Whenever the President finds that the entry of any alien or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, he may by proclamation, and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants, or impose on the entry of aliens any restrictions he may deem to be appropriate.”

    Almost all alien students and scholars are detrimental to the interests of the United States. IACTURA PAUCOURM SERVA MULTOS.

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  9. The DOE has announced that “Summit” is the fastest supercomputer. 60% faster than China’s fastest supercomputer. “Summit is the first supercomputer designed from the ground up to handle machine learning, neural networks, and other AI applications.” (MIT technology review).

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  10. “our national STEM policy has been just plain wrongheaded”

    “national STEM policy” seems to imply some national security stuff with military applications or anti-terrorism potential.

    “national STEM policy” also seems to imply some type of contest or race with other countries such as the number of patents and Nobel prizes, test scores, number of startups, number of PhDs, first to develop something, first human to go to Mars, etc.

    There is a super-nice article at The Atlantic. It describes UC-Davis researchers meeting with a company. The very first thing the company did was hand out a 13 page NDA (none disclosure agreement). Many researchers signed the agreement. One guy said, “‘Look, there are 20 things in here I don’t understand and 15 things I completely disagree with. There’s no way I’m signing it.’” I don’t think public institutions should be doing research for companies.

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  11. This whole China as threat (Red Scare – International Chinese Conspiracy) thing seems to have back-fired recently as seen in the Qualcomm take-over by Broadcom. Apparently Paul Jacobs or his lobbyist went to CFIUS convincing them that if Broadcom took Qualcomm over, the US would all behind China in 5G because they would cut R&D spending. So, Trump blocked the merger and now it looks like Qualcomm is going to fall apart anyway. Go figure. 🙂

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  12. I just couldn’t help posing this recent article from and Indian newspaper about the “Student Visa Day” at the US Embassy in India. Here is the link:

    https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/business/india-business/no-big-changes-in-h-1b-visa-programme-us-deputy-chief-of-mission-carlson/articleshow/64479545.cms

    It says: “The US Mission here today observed ‘Student Visa Day’, an event to celebrate higher education ties between India and the United States.”

    That sound;s to me like US Taxpayers are paying it’s embassy employees to pimp for the US Educational Industrial Complex. Who is profiting from this?

    What do they mean “celebrate”? In an era where Millennials with higher degrees find themselves displaced by cheaper foreign workers do we need I diplomats to work as college recruiters to bring in more competition?

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