Tension between national security and science — by its nature open and international — is nothing new.
But over the past year and a half, national security agencies, federal granting agencies, the White House and members of Congress have all signaled their increasing concern about international students or scholars who might seek to exploit the openness of the U.S. academic environment for their own — or their nations’ — gain. And they’re signaling that when it comes to the balance between scientific openness and national security — and, to add a third dimension, economic competitiveness — they’re not happy with where that balance is being struck, especially when it comes to China.
Over the past year and a half, there has been a steady drumbeat of developments out of Washington on this issue. To summarize:
- In December 2017, the White House released a national security strategy that floated for the first time the possibility of restrictions on visas for STEM students from certain nations to prevent the transfer of intellectual property to competitor countries.
- In February 2018, Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray told the Senate intelligence committee that China is exploiting America’s open research and development environment and that the intelligence threat from China would require “a whole-of-society response” involving not just the intelligence sector, but the academic and private sectors as well.
- Congressional hearings with names like Scholars or Spies: Foreign Plots Targeting America’s Research and Development followed. In June, the State Department moved to restrict Chinese graduate students in certain high-tech fields like aviation and robotics to one-year visas, instead of the usual five.
- Programs run by foreign governments aimed at recruiting diasporic or international academic talent — most notably China’s Thousand Talent program — have also come under federal scrutiny. Speaking at a House armed services committee hearing last June, Anthony M. Schinella, the national intelligence officer for military issues in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said these talent programs “facilitate the transfer of foreign technology, intellectual property and know-how to advance China’s science, technology and military modernization goals.”
- An amendment to the defense spending authorization bill last year would have barred Department of Defense funding for any researcher “who has participated in or is currently participating in a foreign talent or expert recruitment program” operated by China, Iran, North Korea or Russia. Although the amendment wasn’t included in the final bill, the version of the bill that was signed into law in August includes language calling for further study of foreign talent recruitment programs and the development of relevant regulations.
- More recently, in January of this year, the Department of Energy, which funds research related to nuclear energy, issued a memo restricting employees and grantees from participating in foreign talent recruitment programs operated by countries deemed by the agency as “sensitive.” A DOE official said the policy, which would affect talent programs operated by China, Iran, North Korea and Russia, has not yet been put in place.
Moreover, it’s not just international collaborations in research funded by the Defense and Energy Departments with their obvious national security implications that have come under increased scrutiny over the past 18 months. Foreign collaborations in the biomedical sciences have, too.
In August, the executive director of the National Institutes for Health, Francis S. Collins, sent a letter to grantees saying the agency “is aware that some foreign entities have mounted systematic programs to influence NIH researchers and peer reviewers.” The letter outlined three main areas of concern: “diversion of intellectual property (IP) in grant applications or produced by NIH-supported biomedical research to other entities, including other countries”; “sharing of confidential information on grant applications by NIH peer reviewers with others, including foreign entities, or otherwise attempting to influence funding decisions”; and “failure by some researchers working at NIH-funded institutions in the U.S. to disclose substantial resources from other organizations, including foreign governments, which threatens to distort decisions about the appropriate use of NIH funds.”
The NIH has reportedly sent letters to dozens of research universities asking them to provide information on specific researchers believed to have undisclosed links to foreign governments, and Senator Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, shared in February that the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General had been referred a number of cases involving allegations that principal investigators on NIH grants had failed to disclose foreign affiliations. An NIH working group on foreign influences on research integrity comprised mostly of university leaders came out with a report in December with a series of recommendations for both the agency and universities to improve disclosure, training and communication, peer review, and monitoring processes.
Bound up in all of this is a broader scrutiny of U.S. universities’ collaborations with China and their acceptance of funding from Chinese government agencies or companies. This scrutiny manifests most prominently in calls from lawmakers for universities to close their Chinese-government funded Confucius Institutes. A wave of U.S. colleges has announced closures of the institutes, which typically focus on Chinese language education and cultural programming, as pressures for them to do so have increased.
Universities have also come under criticism from lawmakers for accepting research funding from Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant that has been charged with violating U.S. sanctions and attempting to steal trade secrets. Some major research universities have cut ties with the company or pledged not to accept future funding. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the latest university to announce it will not accept new funding from Huawei or another Chinese telecom company, ZTE. MIT also announced that it would add an extra layer of review for all collaborations involving people or entities from China (including Hong Kong), Russia and Saudi Arabia.
So that’s the overview. And all this is taking place in the context of Trump’s trade war with China and an increasingly competitive relationship between the two countries.
Big picture, what appears to be driving this intensified scrutiny across the various agencies of the federal government and the Congress is a conviction that if academics and other guardians of high-tech knowledge are not more careful, the U.S. risks letting other countries — most notably China — steal the fruits of U.S. taxpayer-funded research and cheat their way into gaining a technical edge in certain crucial science and technology fields.
And it’s not just primacy in fields with obvious national security-related implications that’s at issue: at stake as well is U.S. dominance in the biomedical and life sciences and the economic advantage that comes with that. As Grassley said in a February statement about foreign threats to NIH-funded research, “These projects can produce important breakthroughs for patients and industry, keeping America at the cutting edge. I intend to continue scrutinizing this area so taxpayers get their money’s worth when funding this research and foreign actors can’t pilfer the good work done by legitimate researchers.”
“This is about not only protecting our national security interests, but it’s also protecting our commercial interests,” said Joanne Carney, the director of government relations at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “That’s an element of national security. Trying to balance our ability to be an innovative nation and protect our commercial interests is something that I think is a priority for the current administration. I think we’re going to go through some growing pains of how do we balance our ability to be an open nation, the ability to collaborate with some of our international partners, while also balancing our commercial interests and national security interests. We’re just going through a new phase.”
“I don’t think it’s necessarily that anything has changed so much as there’s just a growing awareness that there is a potential issue,” said M. Roy Wilson, the president of Wayne State University and co-chair of the NIH working group on foreign influences on research integrity. “I do want to emphasize I think everybody on the committee — most of us were university presidents — were very, very, very sensitive to the fact that most foreign scientists who get NIH grants and who collaborate with scientists here, the vast, vast majority are very productive and have contributed a huge amount to science and are playing by the rules. We want to make sure that we don’t stigmatize the overwhelming majority of foreign investigators. But having said that, there’s just a growing awareness that there has been some small but nonetheless important problem that has to be addressed.”
The U.S. academic research infrastructure is highly reliant on international students and scholars, and Chinese nationals make up the single largest group of students and visiting scholars alike. Students from China earned 5,157 doctorates in science and engineering fields at American universities in 2017, accounting for more than 12 percent of the 41,438 doctorates awarded in science and engineering fields in the U.S. that year, according to data from the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates. In the fields of engineering and mathematics and computer sciences, international students in general (not just students from China) make up the majority of students earning doctorates at U.S. universities. Many in higher education argue that American universities’ ability to continue to attract talented students and scholars from China and elsewhere around the globe is therefore critical to the U.S. remaining a leader in science and technology research.
Science is international, and it’s also open: long-standing U.S. government policy holds that fundamental research — defined as “basic and applied research in science and engineering, the results of which ordinarily are published and shared broadly within the scientific community” — should be unrestricted “to the maximum extent possible.”
That said, the U.S. does have laws and systems in place to protect research that is considered sensitive. Research can be deemed classified — and many research universities have faculty who do government-funded classified research. Technologies deemed sensitive for their potential “dual use” implications — both military and commercial purposes — can be subject to export controls by the Department of Commerce, including “deemed export” rules that prohibit transfer of the technology to foreign nationals who are present within the U.S. The Department of State regulates export of certain technologies subject to arms control regulations, and the Department of Treasury enforces economic and trade sanctions.
But security officials say the national security risk is increasing. A 2018 report from a Pentagon entity, the Defense Innovation Unit, on China’s technology transfer ambitions stated that “Chinese science and engineering students frequently master technologies that later become critical to key military systems, amounting over time to unintentional violations of U.S. export control laws. The phenomena of graduate student research increasingly having national security implications will inevitably increase as the distinction between military and civilian technology blurs.”
“U.S. academic environments offer valuable, vulnerable and viable targets for foreign espionage,” E. W. Priestap, then the assistant director of the counterintelligence division for the FBI, said in prepared congressional testimony last year. “These environments offer visiting academics access to cutting-edge research, advanced technology, data about technologies that may later be further developed in classified environments, world-class equipment and expertise, free exchange of ideas, and substantial private-sector and government-backed funding.”
Priestap argued that colleges and universities need to do more to educate faculty and students about how to protect intellectual property and to mitigate threats. “These schools would also be well served to recognize that, as stewards of taxpayer research dollars, they must implement clearer — and in some cases more restrictive — guidelines regarding funding use, lab access, collaboration policy, foreign government partnership, nondisclosure agreements and patent applications,” he said.
Reports from several nongovernmental groups have also raised concerns and suggested that universities and/or governments may need to consider more restrictive policies. A report from an Australian think tank released in October found that China has sponsored more than 2,500 military scientists and engineers to study at overseas universities since 2007 and argues that current policies of universities and governments do not adequately address scientific collaborations with the People’s Liberation Army.
“To date, there’s been no significant public discussion on why universities should be directly contributing to the technology of a nonallied military,” says the report, authored by researcher Alex Joske. “Importantly, there’s also little evidence that universities are making any meaningful distinction between collaboration with the Chinese military and the rest of their collaboration with China.”
Another report from a group of China specialists published by the Hoover Institution, “China’s Influence and American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance,” also addresses the loss of sensitive or proprietary technology through academic instruction or cooperation.
“There are indications that the U.S. government is now strengthening measures to prevent the theft of sensitive technology and intellectual property that is being developed on U.S. campuses,” the report states. “These measures may require heightened screening and, in some cases, outright denials of visas to individuals from certain state-run institutions or even from certain sensitive research fields. Such calls have understandably prompted concern from the academic community, fearing that this will undermine the principles of academic freedom, hinder collaboration and deny American universities access to a rich talent pool. These reservations are merited and require that any tightening of visa categories be as narrow as possible.”
Competition With China and Fears of Racial Profiling
Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China, describes the intensified focus on research security as “a central part of the American response to China, to its emergence as a peer competitor and to aspects of its ambition and to many of its methods — not all of which are to be attacked and demonized but some of which are problematic.”
“It’s in the universities that you see it most starkly — although universities aren’t the only place — where America’s core values of security are at odds with America’s core values of openness, and we haven’t yet made a decision about how we are going to continue to value openness in light of security concerns,” Daly said. “And there’s a third tranche, which is the value of the market and market economic behavior, which also is at odds with both openness and security and aspects of that play within the university setting as well.”
“From the security end of this, the question is why are we training China’s best and brightest to compete with us more effectively?” Daly asked. “That’s not a silly question. You might have a good answer for that, and one of the answers is over the last 40 years, America has tremendously benefited from Chinese talent. It’s a complicated question. There’s a real danger of racial profiling and there’s a danger of McCarthyist views, and yet even when you say that, when you strip it away, the security concerns remain legitimate because we know a good deal about China’s ambitions at this point.”
The risk of racial profiling has, however, sparked concern. Representative Judy Chu, a Democratic congresswoman from California and the chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, objected last year to what she described as efforts by Congress “to fuel the dangerous narrative that students from China should be viewed with more scrutiny than those from other countries.”
A letter published in Science last month from several groups of Chinese or Chinese American scientists also raises concerns about “the recent political rhetoric and policies that single out students and scholars of Chinese descent working in the United States as threats to U.S. national interests.” The letter expresses the writers’ “sincere hope that increased security measures will not be used to tarnish law-abiding scientists and limit normal and productive scientific exchanges.”
William Brustein, the vice president for global strategies and international affairs at West Virginia University, said he has grown increasingly concerned about the “China bashing” he hears from Washington.
“These programs that they’re targeting — the Confucius Institutes, the talent programs — there hasn’t recently in the last few years been a nuanced and a balanced approach to talking about the pros and the cons,” he said. “I would think it would be a big detriment to both countries if we continue down this road and we start seeing the end of Chinese student growth in America. To portray it as if all these people who are coming over are working somehow for the People’s Liberation Army or national security apparatus in China is so faulty, so wrong. Most of these people coming over, they want to get a top-notch education, their parents are putting all their resources into the hopes that maybe they’ll be able to get an H-1B visa, stay in the United States and have a career here. Or if they go back to China, they’ll be able to land greater opportunities there, whether it’s in business or some kind of government position. But nevertheless, it’s not as if they’re being trained or indoctrinated to come over here to be spies. I worry about where this is all going.”
The View From Campuses
University leaders say the increased scrutiny from Washington is having an effect on their campuses.
“I do think that all of these letters both from the agencies and from Congress and specific callouts in federal legislation have led to a sense of angst at universities,” said Sandra A. Brown, the vice chancellor for research at the University of California, San Diego. “I think everybody does feel it is a time of greater scrutiny. I’m reminding our faculty that we have normal processes in place to be monitoring these kinds of engagements and we are reminding them of what they are, helping them with any questions that they might have and meeting with them individually as needed with regards to their individual situations.”
“It [the greater scrutiny] impacts both issues that relate to foreign collaborations at the investigator level and institutional collaborations but also the student side of things can’t be missed,” Brown said. “Faculty are getting nervous about bringing students that in the past they may never have been concerned about.”
At the same time, she said, “I do think that this challenge has resulted in enhancements in communications between the universities and federal agencies, not just federal funding agencies, but national security agencies, the FBI, and all of those communications, I think, in the end, will be a good thing.”
Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities, said the association has been sharing best practices, “whether it’s training to make people aware of these things, whether it’s compliance with export control rules. There’s a lot of sharing of information around what campuses have been doing that they feel are effective practices in this area and what they have just started doing in light of some of the concerns that have come from NIH and some of the other agencies.”
“I can tell you the leading research universities and the administrators at the universities are giving this a significant amount of attention and taking this set of issues very seriously,” Smith said.
“The focus on what universities should be doing, I think, are really reminiscent of what we do in a number of areas related to research — one is educating faculty and staff about issues in this area to make sure that they understand that they need to be disclosing who they’re working with, particularly if they have international collaborators. If they’re receiving money, receiving resources, if NIH-supported work is taking place overseas, that needs to be disclosed,” said Samuel L. Stanley Jr., the president of the State University of New York at Stony Brook and a member of the NIH working group on foreign influences on research integrity.
“The more problematic thing is, we really work on a system of trust — we ask people to disclose,” Stanley said. “How do we monitor this? Do we do random audits, or are there red flags we look at? That’s where the partnership with the security agencies becomes so important. It becomes critical that we have information that can help us identify if cases have taken place in NIH or other agencies where people were not following the rules: What are some of the signal or signs that might have helped detect this?”
“There’s a tension that always exists,” Stanley said. “I chaired the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity for eight years; it taught me a lot. The security agencies really spend a lot of time thinking about how to protect assets. That’s what they do, and they do very well.”
“Of course, we in science think a lot about how you generate new knowledge and how you disseminate as broadly as possible so other people can push the field further. Those two are in fundamental conflict. Finding middle ground sometimes is difficult.”