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Silent No Longer: ''Model Minority'' Mobilizes PDF Print E-mail
By Andrew Lawler
November 10, 2000


Angered and emboldened by the Wen Ho Lee case, many Asian-American researchers at national labs are decrying their status as "high-tech coolies"--and demanding change

When physicist Shao-Ping Chen sifted through his e-mails one Monday morning in August, he came across an unsettling message. "Wen Ho Lee should be supported (by the neck), cut down, drawn, and quartered," read part of a diatribe from a colleague at New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory that had been forwarded to Chen. At that point, the federal government, after conducting a massive investigation of Lee for possible espionage and keeping him in solitary confinement for 9 months, was preparing to put the former Los Alamos physicist on trial for mishandling classified data. For Chen, the e-mail, with its allusions to a lynching, was a frightening reminder of the racial overtones that he believes tainted this case from the start. "It had a very chilling effect on me," he recalls.

In response to the Lee saga and its fallout, Asian-American scientists and engineers like Chen are turning up the heat. The government's case against Lee imploded in September, when prosecutors dropped all but one of 59 charges against him and a federal judge set him free with a stinging indictment of the government's conduct. But many Asian Americans at the nation's weapons labs are now aggressively protesting a culture that they believe has not only singled them out as potential security risks but has also held back their careers. They also have compiled figures, which are disputed by lab officials, indicating that on average they lag in terms of pay. "The term going around now among us is that we're high-tech coolies--if we work hard, we're given more work," says Joel Wong, an engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

It's a sudden and surprising turn of events for a community that traditionally has avoided political organization, legal recourse, and conflict with authority. "They don't sit at the back of the bus," says Hugh Gusterson, an anthropologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied both Los Alamos and Livermore. "But they feel marginalized, alienated, and persecuted." And given the growing numerical muscle of Asian Americans in both public and private labs, the budding movement--if sustained--will be felt far beyond the secure fences of the Department of Energy's (DOE's) weapons labs. AIDS researcher David Ho of the Rockefeller University in New York City, who sits on a presidential panel examining the status of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, says that the case is having a "dramatic effect" on Asian-American researchers. And he predicts those effects "will ripple through the academic community as well."

The ripples likely won't stop there, others add. "The Lee case is likely to be seen as a watershed" for Asian Americans by future historians, says Paul Igasaki, vice chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which is investigating discrimination charges at both Los Alamos and Livermore. Steven Aftergood, a security analyst at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C., agrees. "The case has catalyzed a new degree of organization and activism--among Chinese Americans in particular and Asian Americans in general--that is irreversible," he says.

Chen, who spent nearly 2 weeks of his vacation time sitting through hearings on the Lee case this summer in Albuquerque, gives lab management 2 years to address what he sees as egregious salary and managerial inequities. If there's no change, the 15-year Los Alamos veteran adds, "I'll leave the lab." And Wong says that he, too, is ready to quit. "The Wen Ho Lee case woke us up," he adds. "It tells us that hard work and being humble are not enough."

Number power

Such strong statements are reverberating through the weapons laboratories, which are already struggling to retain and hire high-quality researchers amid a post-Cold War economic boom. Although Lee is now a free man, and many of the most drastic security measures imposed in the past 18 months have been relaxed, the allegations of espionage, concerns about racial profiling, foreign travel restrictions, plans for polygraph testing, and a call for a national boycott of all DOE labs by Asian Americans have made the labs seem less than welcoming (Science, 6 October, p. 22).

Feelings of alienation are far from universal among Asian Americans in the labs. Many say they have not experienced overt discrimination, and others point to language difficulties and cultural traditions which frown on self-promotion that can block career advancement. But the growing sense of anger and frustration that many Asian Americans are now expressing is a particularly worrisome development for those who oversee the labs. "If we can't make the labs an attractive place for Asian Americans," says Livermore director Bruce Tartar, "then we lose big time."

The number of researchers and managers who are leaving the weapons labs is increasing. Attrition rates at Los Alamos have risen from 2.7% in 1996 to 4.1% in 1999. Jonathan Medalia of the Congressional Research Service estimates that about half of the entire workforce of the weapons labs will have retired by 2010. Finding a new generation to baby-sit the world's largest nuclear arsenal is already an enormous challenge. The higher salaries, stock options, greater flexibility, and fewer intrusive security measures in the booming private sector already have made the competition tough.

Asian Americans--a heterogeneous group that includes recently transplanted Indian computer scientists, highly educated physicists who fled China's Cultural Revolution, and biologists who are third-generation Americans of Japanese descent--are an increasingly important source of top-notch recruits. They constitute the fastest growing ethnic group in the country--expected to more than double to 10% by 2050. They are also highly concentrated in science and engineering. Almost 70% of doctorates earned by Asian Americans are in the life sciences, physical sciences, and engineering--far above the average for other ethnic groups. One-fifth of all U.S. doctorates awarded in these fields go to persons of Asian heritage, and Asian Americans are three times more likely to be scientists or engineers than is the average American. At Los Alamos, 4.5% of professional staff members are Asian American--a jump of one-third in just 5 years--while at Livermore nearly one in 10 professional staff members is of Asian heritage. There is already evidence that fewer Asian Americans are applying for jobs since Lee's firing in March 1999. From June 1997 through February 1998, there were nearly 900 applicants for jobs at the three weapons labs, 18% of whom were of Asian origin. From March 1999 through February of 2000, the number of applicants stayed roughly the same, but the percentage of Asians dropped below 10%.

DOE officials say there is little question that the Lee case and its aftermath are partly responsible for the decline. And they agree that morale has suffered. "The Wen Ho Lee case has raised a lot of fear, distrust, and suspicion," says Jeremy Wu, appointed by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson in January to monitor potential discrimination. It also raised "long-standing issues of the glass ceiling and pay inequity."

Data dispute

The scant data available on those "long-standing issues" appear to support Asian American concerns. Their growing numbers have not translated into managerial power. As with women, Asian Americans easily enter the doors of academia and government laboratories but then generally fail to rise as high or as fast as their white male colleagues.

At Livermore, nearly one in 10 members of the professional staff is Asian American, but only one in 25 is a manager or supervisor. Similarly, at Los Alamos, about one in 25 professionals is of Asian heritage, but just one of 99 top managers at the lab is Asian American. Employees and lab managers alike acknowledge this glass ceiling, although there is disagreement over why it exists and how it should be broken.

Documenting pay inequities is more difficult, because employees and lab managers disagree on how to interpret the data. According to a group of Livermore Asian Americans, the average salary of an Asian-American physics Ph.D. at the lab is as much as $12,000 a year below that of other physics Ph.D.s. The group also maintains that salary discrepancies increase with the length of service, and that the inequities have changed little over the past decade. Robert Kuckuck, Livermore's deputy director of operations, disputes this analysis. "We see no significant differential in salary," he says.

But he declined to provide data, noting that "it's still in a preliminary state." Likewise, Los Alamos managers take issue with an analysis by Chen that shows a $3000-a-year average salary gap between Asian Americans and their Los Alamos colleagues. "The lab found a statistically insignificant difference in salaries between the two groups," says Jacqueline Paris-Chitanvis, a lab spokesperson. But Los Alamos officials, like their Livermore colleagues, say they cannot release their data.

Catalyst for action

It took the Lee case to bring these issues of pay and the glass ceiling out in the open. Lee's treatment, and the harsh lab security measures imposed in the wake of his March 1999 firing, prompted two organizations--the Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education and the Association of Asian-American Studies--to call for an employment boycott of all DOE labs.

Asian Americans, however, are sharply divided over whether a boycott is the proper approach. "It is hurting the labs and creating a wall at a time when we need dialogue," says Manvendra Dubey, a Los Alamos atmospheric chemist and chair of the Asian-American diversity working group. But during a recent gathering of a half-dozen Asian-American Livermore employees, five of the six said they backed the boycott as a way to put pressure on management. Says Ling-Chi Wang, the ethnic studies professor at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, who proposed the boycott: "This is a vehicle to express our collective outrage and get the message across."

Although the media spotlight has primarily been on Los Alamos, the level of distrust between employees and managers seems particularly intense at Livermore, which is located in a region with the highest proportion of Asian Americans in the country. As the Lee case snowballed last fall, nine Livermore employees submitted formal complaints charging UC--which operates both Livermore and Los Alamos--with discrimination in pay and promotion opportunities. Kalina Wong, one of the nine and a group leader in controlled materials, says management has not taken Asian-American concerns seriously enough. Adds one of the employees: "I haven't gotten a promotion in 16 years--I feel blackballed."

The complaints prompted the California Department of Fair Employment to investigate. If the department's report backs the allegations, says the group's lawyer, Jack Lee, he expects to file a class-action suit. Meanwhile, the federal EEOC is conducting its own investigation. "It's very unusual for both to be investigating the same entities," says Lee, of the San Francisco law firm Minami, Lew & Tamaki.

Livermore managers decline to discuss the investigations but dismiss the idea that there is systematic discrimination. "We've been looking at these same issues for 5 years," says Susan Houghton, public relations chief at the lab. "And you are always going to have people who feel differently."

Reluctant critic

George Kwei, a senior physicist who has worked at both Los Alamos and Livermore, is one of the reluctant activists. Kwei, who came from Taiwan at the age of 12, would seem to be a poster boy for Asian-American success. He arrived at Los Alamos in 1974, excelled in laser research, rose to deputy associate director at the lab, and continued vibrant research in neutron scattering. "He's done a lot of fine work in a remarkable number of fields," says his Harvard mentor, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dudley Herschbach.

Kwei also helped Los Alamos director John Browne's office draft memos and public releases during the Lee crisis. He vociferously opposes the boycott and fears that both Los Alamos and Livermore are losing prestige. But recent events have put him in the critics' camp. He was shocked by what he felt were an intelligence official's racist comments during a lab security seminar and by the pay and promotion data passed around among Asian-American employees. So when a pet research project he proposed at Los Alamos was continuously rebuffed, and when he was passed over this summer for a senior job at Livermore for which he believes he was well qualified, Kwei says he began to wonder if his ethnicity played a role.

He reached this conclusion reluctantly, he says, but last month he filed a request for an administrative review as to why he was not selected for the job. "Their response was totally unsatisfactory," he says, adding that he has since asked for an independent review. "I could find a lawyer and sue the lab and UC," Kwei adds. But he says the real purpose of his complaint is to underscore that management must be more aggressive in putting Asian Americans into leadership positions.

Lab managers declined to discuss Kwei's case. Joseph Thompson, Kwei's former Los Alamos group leader, says he doubts Kwei's proposed project was derailed because of prejudice, and other former co-workers say that Kwei sometimes could be prickly and abrasive. But Kwei's disaffection, whatever the particular merits of his complaints, illustrate that distrust has reached the highest level.

Asian Americans disagree on whether lab management and DOE are taking their concerns seriously. Kwei believes senior management at both Livermore and Los Alamos are sincerely attempting to address the problems, although he worries that that commitment drops off at lower levels. But Livermore's Dorothy Ng is skeptical that the senior management will make changes without intense pressure from DOE and employees. "If we don't hold the lab accountable, nothing will get done," she says.

DOE's Wu notes that the department is hampered by its arms-length relationship to the labs, which are run by private contractors. But he points out that Richardson last month ordered DOE's inspector general to investigate whether security clearance procedures mask racial profiling. He also recently ended a ban on foreign visitors from certain countries--including China and India--to the weapons facilities. And Wu hosted a recent conference bringing together various Asian-American researchers from around the DOE complex. DOE managers also say that they aim to give Asian-American employees a voice through a new ethnic organization. But critics say the department has made many blunders beyond the Lee case, such as last year's security video that included a woman with East Asian features in a trench coat, fedora, and carrying a spy's tiny camera.

Lab managers say that they are trying to create a dialogue by promoting discussion of diversity and strengthening career-enhancement efforts. Both Browne and Livermore's Tartar have met in recent weeks with groups of Asian-American employees to discuss their concerns. With the 2001 budget out of the way, Tartar says he intends to make it a top priority. Adds Steve Younger, who leads Los Alamos's famed X division where Lee worked and which oversees the design of nuclear weapons: "It's not our intention to exclude people." But he agrees that the lab has "its own peculiar culture--and it's a culture that needs to change."

Culture clash

Indeed, change is coming to all the national labs, as well as to academia and industry, says Rockefeller's Ho. "How many Asian Americans do you see doing science, and how many do you see as leaders?" he asks. "There's clearly a huge gap."

Many Asian-American researchers acknowledge that smashing the glass ceiling and redressing apparent pay inequities require change within their community as well. Language difficulties can pose an obvious barrier to advancement, but many Asian-American researchers say that cultural differences discussed less openly also are holding them back. "People of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean backgrounds generally do not want to rock the boat," says William Chu, a Korean-American biologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. "It's a cultural thing." Kwei agrees. "In general, Asian Americans have been brought up to work hard and not make waves--to let our work speak for itself."

Don Tsui, a physicist at Princeton University in New Jersey and a 1998 Nobelist born in China, says this low-key and self-effacing approach no longer is enough in the competitive world of U.S. research: "The general attitude that you just do your work is completely out of date." U.S. researchers, he adds, must realize that "if you don't toot your horn, no one will do it for you."

Asian Americans also may have trouble adapting successfully to a system that tends to reward aggressive and outspoken individuals. "That is treasured in American culture," says Kunxin Luo, a rising biologist with a joint appointment to Lawrence Berkeley and UC Berkeley who came from China a decade ago. "In most Asian cultures, being modest is the number-one virtue." She recalls her difficulty in negotiating her own salary: "My American supervisor said I should be much tougher, but I just couldn't do it."

The result is a form of self-imposed discrimination in which Asian Americans avoid the managerial track and stick to the lab bench. Simon Yu, a senior high-energy physicist who has worked at Livermore and now is at Lawrence Berkeley, insists he prefers research to shuttling back and forth to Washington or chairing administrative meetings. Although he's vocal on technical issues, he acknowledges that he becomes "shy when jostling for a position." He recalls a meeting of U.S. and European physicists where everyone literally fought for the best seat. "I told my wife that night, 'I don't belong here.' "

Americans of East Asian heritage say that they must constantly navigate the conflicting currents of their two cultures. "I've tried--consciously--to be as Americanized as I can," says Luo, as she bustles around her office. "Until Asian-American scientists can understand the differences and purposefully try to melt into this culture a little bit better, there will be problems." But others put an emphasis on what their native cultures can bring to the lab--such as a more careful and collaborative approach. "Since we come from a basically poor resource environment, we usually plan two or three steps ahead," says Livermore's Joel Wong. And the East Asian tradition of collaborative efforts, as opposed to the rugged individual model of the West, is a good fit for an era of large and complex scientific endeavors, he adds. And, Wong says, "I don't want to lose my cultural traits. Each immigrant brings to this country a gift."

But the hard lesson from the Lee case, says Berkeley's Wang, is that Asian Americans must learn to play by traditional American rules when necessary: "It's fine to retain our traditional cultural values, but democracy only works for those who participate." If you don't take part, he adds, "you'll be run over." But there is an alternative--at least for those who have not been in the United States for generations--Wang notes. An increasing number are voting with their feet by moving to the booming universities and high-tech companies of Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea, which often offer tempting salaries, benefits, and working conditions. "The best and brightest will move on, which will hurt American science," worries Henry Tang, chair of a New York-based group of prominent Asian Americans called the Committee of 100. Adds Wong: "So if this country wants to avoid a reverse brain drain, it will have to accommodate us."

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