Chinese PhD students a risk to West in some fields, v-c warns

Former chief defence scientist of Australia says universities may be forced to bar Chinese nationals from conducting research in sensitive areas

May 16, 2019
Source: Getty

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.


Print headline: West ‘may need to bar’ Chinese from some fields

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Reader's comments (6)

The racist, imperialist West has been self harming for decades so this decision comes as no surprise. China's spending on R&D is more than the US and the EU combined, which explains why China leads the world in science and technology. According to the Japan Science and Technology Agency, China now ranks as the most influential country in four of eight core scientific fields, tying with the U.S. The agency took the top 10% of the most referenced studies in each field, and determined the number of authors who were affiliated with the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France, China or Japan. China ranked first in computer science, mathematics, materials science and engineering. The U.S., on the other hand, led the way in physics, environmental and earth sciences, basic life science and clinical medicine. The Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (Ai2) examined not just the number of AI research papers coming from China but the quality of those papers—as judged by the number of citations they receive in other work. The study suggests that China will overtake the US in the most-cited 50% of research papers this year, the top 10% of research papers in 2020, and the top 1% by 2025. Six of the 11 artificial intelligence (AI) unicorns – valued over one billion U.S. dollars – come from China, according to CB Insights, a research firm that tracks venture capital and startups. SenseTime took the top spot with a valuation of $4.5 billion dollars, followed by Yitu Technology at 2.3 billion U.S. dollars and smaller unicorns 4Paradigm, Horizon Robotics and Momenta. Chinese government policies incentivize the development of AI, automation, and robotics. In 2016, authorities released the Robotics Industry Development Plan, outlining targets and strategies for growing the robotics industry in the next five years. PWC predicts that China will be the biggest winner from the application of AI worldwide. Adopting these novel technologies will lead to a 26%  boost in China’s GDP by 2030, whereas, on average, world GDP will rise by 14%. The World Intellectual Property Organization, WIPO, ranked 167 universities and public research universities for the top 500 patent applications. 110 of the patents were from China, 20 from the United States and 19 from South Korea. My university's chancellor told me that we have benefited immensely from our collaborations with Chinese universities and I imagine others can tell similar tales. I know that Chinese scientist are also responsible for 55% of peer-reviewed American STEM papers. China represents no military threat to anyone. We are doomed.
Knowlege is like a knife - you can prepare a meal with one or kill someone with one. If you start getting twitchy about certain areas, maybe you'd better stop researching them... but you can bet your bottom dollar that others will not stop exploring them and come up with applications that you may feel are a threat. Or is it OK for 'our' people to develop military applications, just not other nations? That's hypocritical. Knowledge be like muck, no use except it be spread.
Racist. Australia just targeted one nation. What about all the other nations? If they are to ban Chinese, they should also ban people with passports of another nationality. This way, it is more fair. They can keep their knowledge, and the Chinese and people from other nationalities would go to another country. This means that the educational department of Australia will suffer a huge setback (due to the decrease of income from international students) and this would cause economic issues. The economy will change, as they prevent great minds from pursuing knowledge, less people would graduate from the universities of Australia.
The simple truth: it's complicated.
Doesn't China lead the West in quantum computing and hypersonics, as well as in 5G, at the moment?
In academia, what researchers as well as scholars pursue is academic freedom, which should put working without racism and discrimination in the package. For what reason you can ban only Chinese researchers, how about those from other countries. If let this logic works, China today, who tomorrow? Will the US be a candidate? I don't think so because it seems that Australia is a partner or assistant of the US. Education begins with 'e', and can be explained by some words commencing with 'p', 'pluralism' for example, but rather than those like 'populism' or even 'politicalisation'.