Spy Flap Hits Foreign Researchers

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

The escalating political crossfire over alleged Chinese spying at U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories has claimed its first scientific casualties. Earlier this week, officials at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico told Science that new government restrictions designed to prevent spying by foreign scientists have led to the departure of at least one highly regarded researcher and have prompted several foreign-born students to turn down postdoctoral fellowships.

The espionage controversy centers on allegations that Los Alamos physicist Wen Ho Lee, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Taiwan, stole classified computer codes (Science, 26 March, p. 1986). The case prompted the Department of Energy last year to begin tightening restrictions on the hundreds of foreign-born scientists working at its three nuclear weapons centers: Los Alamos, the Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Under the new rules, foreign-born researchers who are not U.S. citizens will have a harder time receiving research funding, accessing supercomputers, and receiving visitation permits.

The controversy has also prompted proposals from Republicans in Congress to impose a moratorium on thousands of visits annually to the labs by researchers from 25 nations deemed sensitive, including China, India, and Russia. Such restrictions are fiercely opposed by Clinton Administration officials, who note the majority of the visitors are involved in nonclassified work. In particular, DOE officials worry that a moratorium could disrupt exchanges aimed at securing Russia's nuclear stockpile.

The increasingly hostile atmosphere, however, has already affected the career of Los Alamos postdoctoral researcher Peter Vorobieff. After learning he would have trouble receiving funding, the Russian mechanical engineer--who for 3 years has been part of a prominent team studying turbulence in soap films and other nonlinear phenomena--will leave this summer for an academic appointment at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. Senior Los Alamos scientists also report that two aggressively recruited researchers--one Chinese, the other Russian--recently turned down postdoctoral positions, citing the tense political climate. About half of the lab's 365 postdocs are foreign-born, with most coming from China, India, and Russia.

The controversy "is just destroying the morale of foreign visitors," says physicist David Campbell, a longtime Los Alamos researcher who now heads the physics department at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Campbell is disturbed by what he sees as the antiforeigner overtones in the public debate. "Xenophobia is a dangerous pastime for a nation of immigrants," he warns.

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