China enforcement distracting US research operations

Government pressure found causing harm beyond the loss of foreign partners

December 5, 2020
Source: iStock

China-related enforcement measures are creating chronic internal tensions that major US universities regard as tangibly disrupting their research operations beyond their already costly losses of scientific partnerships.

The central problem, according to research leaders at several prominent US universities, is a pervasive culture of suspicion borne by regular FBI visits to campuses and the resulting need for aggressive scrutiny of staff behaviour.

Its dimensions became clear to Ithaka S+R, a non-profit higher education services company, during a project in which it conducted in-depth interviews with research officers at 44 top US universities. “It just came up again and again and again and again,” said Roger Schonfeld, director of the libraries, scholarly communication and museums programme at Ithaka.

In those interviews, Mr Schonfeld said, the Ithaka team heard several administrators – typically a campus’ vice-president for research – describe being forced by government pressure to spend substantial amounts of time and energy investigating their own staff.

At least one of the chief research officers – usually former faculty members – admitted making plans to quit his post rather than keep participating in such work, Mr Schonfeld said.

“Whatever their own views were” on the proportionality of the US response to the espionage threat, he said, “they were all standing up compliance functions around research, security, foreign influence, export controls, that just hadn’t been in place to the same degree until the past couple of years”.

The association representing the nation’s elite research universities acknowledged the burden, saying it was also seeing enforcement-related pressures hampering academic science beyond just the loss of global partnerships.

“It certainly consumes a lot of time and energy and resources,” said Tobin Smith, vice-president for policy at the Association of American Universities. “And that detracts from being able to focus on other key areas,” including general fundraising and strategic planning tasks, Mr Smith said.

US universities are largely sympathetic to the idea that the Chinese government is making extensive efforts to send scientists and other agents to the US to steal technological information of military and economic value.

University leaders are concerned, however, that the campaign – including a series of arrests or expulsions over failures to fully report ties with Chinese partners – may be going too far at times, given that academic science is meant to be shared, and that foreign scholars are a critical part of its development.

“We lose if we don’t know what they know,” Mr Smith said of the Chinese. “And if we aren’t collaborating, we won’t know what they know, and we can’t then understand where they’re at, and we can’t benefit from the knowledge they might have that we don’t.”

The 44 vice-presidents and vice-provosts for research represented many of the nation’s most prestigious universities, including six of the eight Ivy League institutions and about half of the AAU’s membership.

Conditions aren’t likely to improve during the Biden administration, Mr Smith warned. While the Trump administration often expressed hostility to foreigners and immigrants, many Democrats are critical of China over its human rights record, and the FBI’s work on espionage typically is unaffected by party control of the White House, Mr Smith said.

One of the biggest improvements the new administration could make, he said, would be to complete long-running efforts to harmonise between federal agencies the rules that define what kinds of foreign collaborations are legally acceptable.

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