US universities take closer look at faculty distractions

China crackdown remains controversial, but institutions advised of broader reasons to keep tabs on scientists

October 10, 2021
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The Trump-era crackdown on Chinese scientists has led US universities to look more closely at a variety of ways in which they may be getting hurt by outside faculty distractions.

Universities have largely acknowledged that the Trump policy – producing dozens of arrests of ethnic Asian researchers – may have veered into an unproductive level of focus on racial or national origins.

But they are embracing one of the underlying lessons arising from the crackdown: that they do not carefully track what their researchers are doing, and might be missing other ways in which outside faculty activities might be costing them.

“It made every institution, almost, take a look at their current systems and processes and policies, and examine those,” Kristin West, the director of research and regulatory reform at the Council on Governmental Relations (COGR), said of the Trump crackdown on foreign ties.

One important realisation, Ms West said, was that universities must finds ways to cut across disciplinary silos to improve central office understanding of what their academic staff are doing.

COGR, a university grouping that studies federal regulations, began this year to issue guidance to its member institutions outlining those potential problems and suggesting ways to address them.

It is putting forth that advice as the Democrat-led Congress digs deeper into the Trump policy and its ongoing effects on US higher education and national research competitiveness.

Along with the arrests, US officials estimate that 1,000 scientists have fled the country during the crackdown, fuelling debates about how many of them were spies and how many represent genuine lost talent.

US universities have typically declined to comment publicly on such firings or departures, citing personnel confidentiality. They include the Baylor College of Medicine, which just fired two Chinese-American scientists whose spouses are researchers based in China.

Those dismissals happened just ahead of a hearing this past week by the Science Committee of the US House of Representatives that highlighted data showing that almost all cases of intellectual property theft involve the private sector. Academia usually shares its research findings intentionally, and rarely is the victim of foreign espionage, lawmakers were told.

“It’s puzzling to many of us why so much of the focus is on academia,” Maria Zuber, vice-president for research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the representatives.

Part of the answer, said Sean Casten, a Democratic representative from Illinois, is politics. “We have always had a challenge in our country – and maybe in every country – between people who embrace change and people who are afraid of change,” he told his colleagues.

Universities, however, do have their own reasons to watch their academic staff more closely, COGR said. Areas worth monitoring, the council said, include faculty working with any outside companies, receiving donations of supplies or equipment, or doing any outside teaching.

As a measuring stick, said Naomi Schrag, vice-president for research compliance at Columbia University and lead author of COGR’s guidance, campus administrators should ask: “Is the activity in some way diverting the faculty member’s energy and commitment away from the home institution to another entity?”

Professor Zuber and other academic experts have been urging the federal government to consolidate and harmonise its requirements for reporting researcher activity so that faculty spend less time filling out paperwork and have more assurance that they have complied properly.

That issue has showed up in cases such as Anming Hu, the former University of Tennessee researcher whose arrest led to the first trial in the Trump-era crackdown. He was acquitted when a federal judge concluded that any errors he might have made in reporting his work in China did not show a definitive attempt to deceive the government.

That same lack of consistent reporting systems can cause confusion inside universities about what their staff are doing, Ms West said. As with foreign alliances, Ms Schrag said, universities should welcome outside partnerships but should also know the details of what they involve.

Such vigilance, Ms West said, seems most important for tenured faculty, given the understanding that they and their institution have made an especially deep commitment to each other. The tenure bond, she said, creates more of “an expectation of where your primary responsibilities lie”.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

“It’s puzzling to many of us why so much of the focus is on academia,” That is a rather naive statement. Research activities often go on for years before they are published - much time is often spent on filling in minor details after the main findings are clear and verified. This knowledge can result in commercially valuable patents. It is therefore clear that espionage pays off even for research that is freely published eventually.

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