Sunday, November 20, 2016

Anti-Asian bias in science

Scientists are a cloyingly liberal bunch. In the wake of this (horrifying) election, seems like every other science Tweet I saw was like
To all my Inuit friends and colleagues: I stand with you. Against fear. Against hate.
Lovely sentiments, for sure, and as a non-white person living in the Philly suburbs at this frightening time, that is welcome. (Although I do wonder who would actually step up if something really went down. Would I? Would I even stand up for myself?)

At the same time, beneath this moralistic veneer, it is of course impossible to deny that there is tons of discrimination and bias in science. Virtually any objective look at the numbers shows that women and under-represented minorities face hurdles that I most definitely have not, and these numbers are backed up with the personal stories we have all heard that are truly appalling. But there is, I think, another less widely-acknowledged or discussed form of discrimination in science, which is discrimination targeted towards Asian scientists.

Asians make up a relatively small (though rapidly growing) portion of the US population. In science, however, they're highly over-represented, making up a large fraction of the scientific workforce. And with that comes a strange situation: a group that is clearly not a small minority, and that is doing well in this highly regarded and respected area, and yet clearly faces bias and discrimination in a number of ways, many of which may be different from those that other minorities face.

First off, what do I mean by Asian? I'm guessing I'm not the only one who feels like I'm checking the "miscellaneous box" when I'm faced with one of these forms and choose "Asian":

I mean, there's a billion Indians and a billion Chinese people EACH out there (not to mention 10s to 100s of millions of other Asian groups), but whatever. Point is, Asians are a diverse group, and I think these different groups face some common and some distinct forms of discrimination. Aside from the various distinctions by ethnic category, there are also distinct forms of bias directed towards Asians coming from abroad as opposed to Asian-Americans. I think all Asians face some measure of discrimination, and in particular, those of East Asian (and within that, Chinese) origin face some of the biggest obstacles.

(I could be completely wrong about this, but I do feel like East Asian scientists face more barriers than South Asians for whatever reason. Part of this may be an matter of numbers: there are simply fewer South Asians in science to begin with. And certainly South Asians from abroad run into trouble, especially a generation ago. That said, as an Indian-American I don't personally feel like I've been on the short end of the stick for racial reasons. Then again, who knows what I'm not hearing, know what I mean? Indeed, I think it's specifically because I'm not Chinese that I've seen mostly anti-Chinese bias, which is what I'll focus on here.)

Exactly what are these barriers? After all, don't the stereotypes of Chinese in the US typically involve words like "diligent", "hard working", "good at math"? Well, I think it's important to realize that it is these very words that implicitly provide an upper limit on what Chinese scientists can aspire to in academia. Consider the following statement I heard from someone (I can't exactly remember the context) that went something like "Oh, they'll just hire a bunch of Chinese postdocs for that, I'm sure." As in "do what they're told", "just labor", "interchangeable", "quiet". Are such sentiments that far from "not independent-minded" or "lacking vision"?

You'd think that these stereotypes may have faded in recent years, and I think that is true to some extent. Then again, take a look at this well-meaning guide from a university in Germany for Chinese/German relationships called "When a Chinese PhD student meets a German supervisor", written by a couple of Chinese PhD students in Germany. I think it actually has a lot of useful things in there, and it would be disingenuous to say that there are no meaningful cultural differences, especially for a foreign student coming to Germany. At the same time, I found some aspects of the guide worrisome:
Through constant discussions, Ming gradually learned when he should obey his supervisor and when he should argue. Ming’s supervisor was very happy when he noticed that the way Ming approached his work had changed and therefore said, “German universities train PhD students to think independently and critically.”
There it is: implicitly, Chinese students don't think independently or critically without extensive German retraining.

And check out this one:
PhD students in Germany are not just students, they often are also researchers and employees at universities. On the one hand, they need to finish their scientific projects independently; on the other hand, they have to teach courses that are assigned by the university or their research groups and they have to do daily organizational work as well. All these tasks require professional qualities. In each research group, every member performs his or her duties according to their contracts.

At the beginning of his PhD, Ming had no plan or agenda at all when he talked to his supervisor, which resulted in aimless and inefficient discussions. After being reminded by the supervisor, Ming began to write agendas for their discussions, but they were always extensive instead of being brief, which made it a laborious task for the supervisor to read. Then the supervisor taught Ming to use bullet points, i.e., to list every question or issue that needs to be discussed with a word or a short phrase.
Right… because I've never had non-Asian students who had these problems with "professional qualities".

I mean, I think this guide is addressing some real concerns and is probably very helpful (check out the part where they describe how to sort garbage like the locals—sounds like someone had a traumatic experience leading to that particular section). But there are long-term consequences to reinforcing the stereotypes of lack of independence, lack of communication skills and the such. Notice how these stereotypes are all about the qualities people think are required for getting to the next level in academia?

Also, this stereotyping is not the only form of bias and racism that Chinese people face in science. Indeed, because the number of Chinese people in science is so large, they must constantly be vigilant about accusations of favoritism and reverse bias. This can come out in particularly nasty ways. For instance, I recently went to a major conference and had a chat with a rather well-known colleague after a meal. As is standard, we spent some time complaining about annoying reviewers, and all of a sudden, my colleague said "And I just KNOW this reviewer is Chinese." The venom with which the word "Chinese" came out of their mouth really took me by surprise, but I'm betting I'm not the only one who's heard that sort of thing, and more than once. Just imagine hearing this kind of talk about any other racial or ethnic group.

In that environment, is it surprising that it is hard for Asian scientists to break through to higher levels in academia? It seems to me that Asians form an under-over-represented class in science: they are a big part of making the scientific enterprise run, but have got plenty of extra hurdles to jump through to get to the next level, with bias working against them on precisely all those extra, conveniently unquantifiable qualities deemed necessary to get, say, a faculty position. My father is an academic, and was pretty sure that he faced racism earlier in his career, though it's hard to pinpoint exactly where and how. I had a recent conversation with a Chinese colleague who told me the exact same thing: he knows its harder for him for a number of reasons, but it's just so hard to prove. It is the soft nature of this bias that makes it so pernicious, which is of course true for other groups as well, but I feel like we don't think about it as much for Asians because they are so visibly over-represented, so we think "What's the problem?".

All this is not to say that there's been no progress. For instance, at the very conference where my colleague lamented their allegedly Chinese reviewer, I noted just how many of the best and brightest PIs in attendance were Asian, including a large number of Chinese and Chinese-American scientists. Indeed, I just visited a university where my hosts were extremely successful Asian scientists, and they so were warm and welcoming, inviting me to dinner at their home together with a few other Asian scientists, all of whom I really admire and respect. At those times, I think the vision of an inclusive, open-minded scientific community is not only possible, but perhaps attainable.

At the same time, I think recent events have shown that these changes do not come for free. It is a cliché, but it is true that we must all fight for these changes and stand against fear and against hate, etc., etc. Great, that's fine and well, and I'm all for it. At the same time, I think it's important to acknowledge that when it comes down to it, social pressures often make it hard to say something in the moment when these situations arise. Looking back at my own experiences, I think I am not alone in saying that I have more regrets about lost opportunities to do or say the right thing rather than proud moments of actually standing up to what I think was wrong. Just saying "we should stand up to bias and discrimination" is very different than providing a blueprint for how to do so.

As such, all moral grandstanding aside, I think there is an interesting question facing us Asians now as a group. Thus far, I feel that Asian scientists have relied on the goodwill of non-Asians to advocate for us, push our careers, make a place for us in science—and to the many, many wonderful scientists who have supported Asians, including myself, a sincere thank you. But it's important to realize that this means, essentially, succeeding on other people's terms. Those terms have generally been favorable to Asian scientists (and non-scientists) so far, but are there limits to Asian success in that model? Do we need to start asserting our rights more aggressively and in a more organized fashion? A postdoc in my lab, Uschi, has vigorously spoken out for postdoc rights here at Penn, and guess what: it makes a difference. I would imagine that advocating for Asians scientists could result in similar benefits. Should this be part of a larger effort to assert Asian rights on a national stage? After all, while relying on the benevolence of kind-hearted non-Asian scientists has worked okay so far in our little science bubble, if we think that general nerdiness and funny accents are going to save us in Gen Pop, well, take a look at what's going on in the aftermath of this election. Maybe it will require concerted, coordinated advocacy to change the policies and bias that make things difficult for foreigners that science in this country relies on, Asian and otherwise.

Gotta say, I felt very weird writing this last paragraph. Does this come across as shrill and ungrateful? Why am I rocking the boat? Making a mountain out of a molehill? Shouldn't we just keep our heads down and focus on our work? These are questions I asked myself as I wrote this as a person who has done well in the system and doesn't really have that much to complain about. But maybe that's just me "being Asian"?

PS: Here's another snippet from the German guide for Chinese students:
The third surprise was that on the same day Ming arrived in Konstanz, the research group threw a welcome party for him and all the group members showed up. At that party, Ming got to know everybody. Besides, there was a discussion about picking a German name for Ming. Based on the group members’ opinions and Ming’s agreement, he was finally named Felix, which indicates optimism and therefore matches his character. From then on, he has had a German name. The thoughtful and warm welcome from his research group touched Ming and he was looking forward to the cooperation with his research group.
Okay, whatever else happens, can we at least agree to stop this forced renaming business?

[Update, 11/20: Apparently, the word Eskimo is now considered derogatory; changed to Inuit, no offense intended.]


  1. My friend Tracy wrote about 'being Asian' in tech; it's an interesting read, sharing some common threads (+ good further reading list).

  2. I totally agree. I've heard many remarks similar to those you discuss here. Asians, but particularly Chinese, are the brunt of more public disparaging comments than any other group in science in my experience. This is especially alarming to me considering Chinese-American, Chinese, and other Asian scientists have been among the best scientists I've known in my career.

    I'd just add one other dimension: that of the "us vs 'them'" mentality between the US/West and China in particular. For example, this recent news piece in Nature about the first human to receive cells edited by CRISPR has the byline "The move by Chinese scientists could spark a biomedical duel between China and the United States" (linked below). Between China and the US? There are at least three companies within the US attempting this, one in England/Switzerland, and countless others throughout the world. I agree with June that competition can be a positive influence on the pace of discovery, but this competition is broader than US vs China. Similarly disturbing comments were made (in both directions) regarding the report of gene editing by NgAgo.

    I share your regret for not speaking up in the past over comments like these. One of my personal responses to the present political and racial climate in the US is to speak up to the best of my ability. Cultural enrichment is one of the ancillary benefits of science and universities, and I think it's part of our job as educators to speak up and encourage moral, ethical, and decent human behavior. Thanks for writing this.

    1. Great point: the geopolitics of this are fascinating (and troubling) as well. I think it's great that you are willing to stand up for what you believe in, and science will be a better place for it. I'm struggling to think of other ways to attack this problem. Dunno, I'm left thinking that organizing may be one way forward.

  3. That German university-sanctioned "German Cultural Guide" for Chinese is beyond insane. Despite having two Chinese "named" authors on it (are they really the authors or just translators?), for you to call it "well-meaning" is beyond euphemistic. That publication is complete Racial/Culture Condescending GARBAGE. I'm an Asian-American scientist of Chinese descent, so I see the publication as a reflection that this German University wanting to court the huge China market of millenials willing to pay full tuition to study abroad, but if a Chinese goes there, they need to be "re-educated" to act more like civilized Germans, and less of their original unsophisticated Chinese norms.

    I'm glad you found it 'worrisome' of the quote "German universities train PhD students to think independently and critically.”

    But look at these other excerpts in the guide that are just as equally troubling, and basically a thinly-veiled attempt to act "highbrow" and borderline racist:

    "When in Germany, Do as the Germans Do. In Germany, there are some conventions and norms to be followed. If you disobey the rules, even small ones, you will be “judged” by the local people."

    "Coming to Germany for a PhD degree, Chinese PhD students usually have to work twice as hard as German students, because what they have learned in China might not be the exact knowledge they need for the work in Germany, whereas the knowledge German students have usually matches the requirements."

    "Higher education in Germany is famous for its rigorous research, endless innovations, advancing globalization, and the government’s vigorous support, which attracts hundreds of Chinese students to come each year in pursuit of their academic dreams. "

    Germans may appear to act progressive, but they still hold the shame of WWII on their sleeves, and the anti-immigrant sentiment is still very strong and emboldened with the Syrian/Middle East refugee crisis. Western society has made alot of cultural progress since the past century, but racism is alive and persisting, abroad and here in the US (a la DJT).

    As Asians, we are all simply too meek and conciliatory not to speak up against the Anti-Asian bias, because it is still happening in our ranks and in our own field of science. Thanks, Raj, for helping to highlight this, and please keep doing so.

    1. Haha, well, I didn't want to come right out and say it like that, but you are not wrong in the least about the condescending nature of that guide. :) At the same time, I think we have to be VERY careful in these discussions not to sow more anger and resentment and to pit ourselves against each other. I know many wonderful German researchers (including close collaborators at my own institution) that are incredibly supportive of their Asian trainees, and don't have a hint of the condescension seen in this "guide". Like it or not, we all have biases, and it will always be a struggle to counter them. The key is to figure out how to productively move forward without erecting more barriers than we tear down.

  4. Well, after having worked in East Asia for over ten years now, I will have to tell all of you something shocking: the quotes from that guide are rather meek compared to similar "guides for foreigners" here in East Asia.

    1. Oh, no doubt, racism in, say, India, is a huge problem, and probably the same is true in other parts of Asia. But I'm not sure how that's relevant to the biases faced by foreign scientists in, say, the US or Germany.

  5. Arjun -- thanks for sharing these thoughts.

  6. It's kind of interesting- Someone brought to my attention that some of the issues that women in science face, not advocating for themselves, being meeker in general, are the same issues Asian scientists face. For example- the new NIH Biosketch format is a great example- you are basically asked to toot your own horn, something that women and Asians are loath to do. As both, I guess I am hosed ;)

  7. Thanks for interesting post and guide I just googled out! Although agree with you on this guide being awful, I became a fan of its hidden humor in cartoons (sunglasses, Boss armband, Ice cream...). However it highlights the fact that, Germany is not a immigrant country like US or Australia and lacks certain political correctness. She is trying to learn but accidents like that "guide" is part of learning mistakes... good to criticize constructively. On that note thanks Arjun to interfare with WWII comment... Has nothing to do with this topic and hurtful.
    I am living as immigrant for a year now in Germany. I can say, overall Germany is trying to do right thing (especially compared to "USA first" attitude). We should learn/help each other how to avoid discrimination. As a new PI, I am not sure if any bias shaping my decisions in recruitment/management. Not that easy for me... Especially when you receive hundreds of applications, small biases can be decisive...

  8. I feel sorry for the misinterpretation of that guide.
    The quote "German universities train PhD students to think independently and critically." is a good example. The nationality of the student doesn't matter. If a german PHD student can't think critically and independently he/she will fail too. And many do.
    That guide is "typisch deutsch", pragmatically written, not a poem. I'm quite sure that it had a german editor.
    The guide is more than sufficient to fulfill the aim, helping Chinese PhD students and German supervisors.
    I'm familiar with the fact that the English most Germans speaking makes a rude impression. That won't change that fast.