Caught in the Crossfire: Fears of Chinese-American Scientists

Yu Xie, Xihong Lin, Ju Li, Qian He, Junming Huang

The US global leadership in science and technology has greatly benefited from international immigrants, most notably from China. In 2020, U.S. universities awarded 34,000 science and engineering doctorate degrees. Of these, 46% went to students on temporary visas. The largest group of these students, making up 37%, were from China. This means that 17% of all science and engineering doctorates in the U.S. that year were awarded to Chinese students. While most of these graduates typically remain in the U.S. for work, the China Initiative, introduced in 2018 amid the US-China trade war, has unintended negative impact on the future supply and retention of current Chinese scientists and engineers in the U.S.

The Department of Justice launched the China Initiative in 2018. This program mainly focused on U.S.-based Chinese scientists, accusing them of not being open about their ties with Chinese institutions in federal grant applications. Scientists and civil rights advocates criticized the initiative for racial profiling. Although the initiative's name was dropped in 2022, concerns about its practices continue. This initiative is linked to potential reverse brain drain and could affect America's global leadership in science and technology, as it may lead to the departure of leading Chinese-descent researchers from the U.S.

The Reverse Brain Drain

In this study, we assess whether the China Initiative accelerated the return migration of Chinese-descent scientists to China, net of various pulling factors. Using Microsoft Academic Graph's scientific publication data and identifying Chinese descent through surnames, we analyzed return migration trends across life sciences, mathematics and physical sciences, and engineering and computer science in the figure below. The y-axis indicates the ratio of returning scientists each year compared to the baseline period of 2005-2010 when "Standardized" is chosen.

Before the 2018 China Initiative, the number of returning Chinese-descent scientists to China was already increasing for both junior and experienced scholars. By 2018, this factor ranged from 4 to 5 for junior scholars and 3 to 4 for experienced scholars across various fields. Post-2018, the trend accelerated, especially reaching 5 to 7 by 2021, except in life scientists. While the return rate slowed for junior life scientists, it increased for experienced ones after 2019. This correlates with the reported decline in dual U.S.-China affiliations and collaborations by 2021, driven by fears of federal suspicion. A similar pattern is observed among Chinese-descent scientists migrating to countries other than China, with a growing fraction choosing China as their destination.


  • All scientists
  • Experienced scientists
  • Junior scientists
  • Raw numbers
  • Standardized numbers

Fears of Chinese-American Scientists

A small, but increasing, fraction of Chinese-American scientists and engineers have returned to China, and most prefer to stay in the U.S. These scientists and engineers are worried that the China Initiative might put their work and lives in the U.S. at risk. From December 2021 to March 2022, a survey conducted by the AASF among 1,304 U.S.-based Chinese-descent scientists, employed at various U.S. universities, revealed this concern. The respondents represented diverse geographies, institution types, genders, fields of study, and seniority levels. While the AASF survey was based on convenience sampling rather than probability sampling due to data unavailability, it still reflects significant apprehension among these researchers in five psychological and three intention-based indicators, consistent with previous surveys. The psychological indicators show widespread unease and fear among respondents: 35% feel unwelcome in the U.S., 72% do not feel safe as academic researchers, 42% are fearful of conducting research, 65% are worried about collaborations with China, and a remarkable 86% perceive that it is harder to recruit top international students now compared to 5 years ago. The intention indicators reveal the potential behavioral impact of these psychological concerns: 45% who obtained federal grants now avoid applying for them, and a shocking 61% have considered leaving the U.S. Among those continuing to apply for federal grants, 95% rely on them for research, especially life scientists. Despite this fear, an overwhelming majority (89%) express a desire to contribute to U.S. science and technology leadership. This survey requires careful interpretation due to two potential biases: "sample selection bias" and "social desirability bias," both of which may exaggerate its negative effects. Therefore, caution is advised in interpreting these results.

Our analysis shows that engineering and computer science faculty, senior staff, and those from public institutions are more inclined to avoid applying for federal grants. Junior faculty and federal grant recipients are thinking more about moving abroad. This is worrying because these groups are vital for keeping the U.S. competitive in science and technology. Fear, as depicted in the figure above, is a strong predictor of these intentions, even after adjusting for demographic, professional, and geographical factors. Despite accounting for fear, junior faculty and grant awardees are still more likely to contemplate leaving the U.S. Additionally, faculty in engineering, computing, and life sciences, as well as senior faculty and males, are relatively more fearful of conducting research in the U.S.


Scientists are drawn not just to material comforts but also to academic freedom and the opportunity to pursue their own ideas and careers. Historically, the U.S. has excelled in offering such an environment. However, recent US-China geopolitical tensions have intensified negative perceptions towards Asians in America, impacting the career outlook and sense of belonging for scientists of Chinese descent. The China Initiative has particularly eroded trust in these scientists, with many feeling unwelcome and fearing federal scrutiny, leading some to consider avoiding federal grants or leaving the U.S., notably in fields like engineering, computer science, and among junior faculty and grant recipients. This initiative has had several unintended consequences detrimental to American science: discouraging Chinese-descent Ph.D. recipients from working in the U.S., creating an unwelcoming and even hostile work environment for Chinese scientists to continue their work, and dissuading them from seeking federal funding or international collaborations. To retain and attract international scientific talent, it's crucial to address these fears and foster an inclusive, safe research environment, essential for sustaining U.S. global leadership in science and technology.