National security concerns could force Western universities to stop enrolling Chinese doctoral students in “sensitive” areas such as quantum computing and hypersonics, a vice-chancellor has warned.
Alex Zelinsky, who joined Australia’s University of Newcastle last November after six years as the country’s chief defence scientist, said higher education institutions were “unrealistic” if they thought they could work with any partner on any research topic.
He said advances in autonomous systems, cybersecurity and materials science had potential applications that “haven’t even been imagined”, and universities must be “very careful” about undertaking collaborative research with groups from some countries – including China – if there was a chance the results could be harnessed in military systems.
That could extend to accepting Chinese PhD students in such areas. “It may come to that,” Professor Zelinsky told Times Higher Education. “There are things we produce in universities…that are truly world leading. They could be turned into a competitive disadvantage.”
The debate is particularly sensitive in Australia, where universities are heavily reliant on China for student recruitment, including at postgraduate level, but where there is growing concern about potential theft of intellectual property and some Chinese researchers’ ties to the People’s Liberation Army.
US universities are also facing increasing pressure to monitor the activities of their Chinese researchers, and the Trump administration has reportedly considered restricting Chinese involvement in sensitive research areas on US campuses amid a mounting trade war with Beijing.
In Australia, universities currently require permits to share and publish applied research in areas with military applications. In February, the government resisted a Department of Defence push to extend controls to a broader suite of research topics in fields such as artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and new materials.
Professor Zelinsky said the government had “done the right thing” and named the topics of potential concern in its 2016 defence White Paper. The document highlighted quantum computing, innovative manufacturing, hypersonics and unmanned systems among the areas likely to spawn new weapons in the region.
But he said technology was a “moving feast” and the export controls might need revisiting. “We’re world leading in certain aspects of areas such as quantum [computing], hypersonics, cybersecurity and autonomous systems,” he said. “We have to realise that other players, because they can’t buy it or build it themselves, will seek to acquire it through any means they can.”
Universities wanting to recruit PhD candidates in sensitive areas would need to consider students’ plans afterwards, Professor Zelinsky said. “If they just want to come here, learn, go back to their country and implement something that could be used against us, you’ve got to be very careful about that,” he said.
James Laurenceson, acting director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, questioned Professor Zelinsky’s intervention, highlighting that a fundamental characteristic of doctoral study was that it created new knowledge.
“It’s hard to steal something that doesn’t yet exist, or that once it does exist is available to all researchers,” he said.
“There are plenty of areas of science and technology where Chinese researchers are at the frontier. If there’s something to steal, it would make just as much sense to argue that we might be the thieves.”
Professor Laurenceson also argued against bans in fields such as quantum computing and artificial intelligence. “These are incredibly broad labels, often encompassing cross-disciplinary elements, and it’s hard to see where you could meaningfully draw a line,” he said.
“It’s not hard to imagine hawkish national security types pushing for extremely broad interpretations.” This could inadvertently undermine Western countries’ ability to stay at the knowledge frontier, Professor Laurenceson said.
But Alex Joske, a researcher with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra, said Western universities took a “simplistic” approach to engagement with Chinese partners. “In many cases, they haven’t thought through the implications,” he said.
“It’s getting harder to draw clear lines between military and civilian research in China. There’s a deliberate effort by the Chinese government to better take advantage of civilian resources, and that applies to universities.”
Professor Zelinsky said that, if collaborative research was thwarted, politicians should provide more research funding as a quid pro quo. “The worst case would be for the government to say we won’t support you, but you can’t work with anyone else.”
He also said that caution was warranted in decisions about allowing Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei to provide critical infrastructure. But universities should have few qualms about using the company’s products, and fewer about accepting Huawei grants for research in non-sensitive areas, Professor Zelinsky argued.
“They were the first to really invest in R&D in 5G. They got ahead while the West was sitting on its hands. If our researchers have a better understanding of where the cutting-edge commercial systems are going, that’s good for Australia,” he said.