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Fear, Loathing in the Labs
Was one scientist fired because he is Chinese?

Asians Under Attack

The Lee case has sent a chill through the U.S. research establishment. But Chinese nationals appear to be absorbing the brunt of the fallout. In late 1999 Congress passed new security restrictions that include a moratorium on all new hires of foreign scientists from "sensitive countries" -- including China, Taiwan, India and Pakistan. In this new climate of suspicion, Chinese nationals at U.S. labs are finding themselves under intense scrutiny. Some have been sacked. This is the story of a mainland-born Ph.D who was well on his way to permanent employment at the Lawrence Livermore lab near San Francisco. He was researching micro-organisms that eat pollutants. We'll call him Joe.

Joe's troubles began last July, when he requested a printer cable for a computer that had been in his lab for five years. To his surprise, the IT manager suddenly wanted to know why a foreign national had a PC. Feeling like a "criminal under investigation," Joe memoed his superiors about the incident. He says they never responded.

Joe's contract required annual re-authorization, a routine procedure. But last summer Joe's supervisors told him that his nationality would make renewal difficult. He kept his head down and focused on his work. Then, last Sept. 1, Joe learned he would be terminated at month's end due to "lack of funds." His supervisors seemed upset and expressed regret.

Why was Joe fired? One possibility is that his sponsors wanted to take over his equipment for a classified project. Maybe someone made allegations against him. Or perhaps the lab questioned his loyalty to a country of which he expects to become a citizen within a few months. Either way, the whole process was so untransparent that Joe will never know. But one thing is clear: because his security clearance was already in effect, Joe would have been exempt from the new restrictions that went into place the month after he was terminated. Joe is now looking for another job.

Asians Under Attack -- Suspicion dogs the scientists
Not long after Wen-ho Lee was named a possible spy, the U.S. Department of Energy conducted special security training at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in northern California. Joel Wong, an industrial hygienist originally from Hong Kong, attended the session. "When a counter-intelligence expert who happened to have an Asian name was introduced," he recalls, "people laughed, as if to say: 'Chinese are the spies, not the spy-catchers.' " And how did Wong feel about that? "We Asians in the audience felt uncomfortable," he says. "Attacking our loyalty didn't seem funny to us."

Chinese-Americans have won six Nobel Prizes in science. They have played a key role in building Silicon Valley and maintaining the U.S. defense system. They fill about 8% of the posts in U.S. labs. For the most part they have been content to keep a low profile. Not anymore. When the Lee case broke, Wong went to Livermore management and warned that the issue was sensitive. "They thought it would just go away," says Wong. It hasn't.

Dick Ling, a Livermore employee since 1981, is one of nine Asian-Americans who have filed discrimination complaints. "Since the Wen-ho Lee thing, Chinese-Americans have been looked at not as U.S. citizens," he says. Ling reckons lab managers automatically consider caucasians more loyal. Hispanics and blacks might also face discrimination, says Ling, "but their loyalty isn't questioned."

Mainland-born Lee Huan is a theoretical physicist who has worked at Los Alamos for more than 20 years. "U.S. citizens with Asian backgrounds are already under-represented at all levels," Lee asserts. "Now when a Chinese-American scientist applies for a job, under the current atmosphere he has a great disadvantage since the manager is likely to use 'play-safe' justification to pass over him."

Charlie Sie, a member of the Asian-American lobbying group Committee of 100, says Asian-American researchers "are looking over their shoulders thinking they don't want to do anything that could be used against them." He says many now hesitate to submit papers to international conferences for fear that years from now they will be targeted merely for having had contact with "sensitive countries." Others says top Asian-American science students are avoiding jobs at national labs because they perceive they won't have equal opportunities for advancement.

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