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Stealing Innovation

FBI director addresses efforts by China to steal academic research and technology. Higher ed groups say they're taking the issue seriously.

April 29, 2019
 
FBI director Christopher Wray speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations on Friday.

Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray doubled down on arguing for the need for a “whole-of-society” response to economic espionage threats, in particular those emerging from China, and reiterated his view that academe needs to be more sophisticated about responding to these threats in remarks on Friday at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Wray’s remarks were in line with what he has said before, but they represent a rare expansion of his views in a public forum. Over the past 18 months, universities have come under increasing pressure from the FBI, the federal science agencies, the White House and members of Congress to confront what the FBI says are broad efforts by foreign actors, in particular China, to steal the fruits of U.S. government-funded research and other valuable intellectual property. The increased scrutiny has raised concerns in academia about racial profiling of Chinese students and scholars and about the risk that overreaction to the threat could undercut scientific collaborations and ultimately harm American science.

In his remarks, Wray described a broad threat emanating from China that targets universities as well as other sectors.

"We still confront traditional espionage threats … but economic espionage dominates our counterintelligence program today,” Wray said in his remarks. “More than ever, the adversaries’ targets are our nation’s assets, our information and ideas, our innovation, our research and development, our technology. And no country poses a broader, more severe intelligence collection threat than China.

“China has pioneered a societal approach to stealing innovation in any way it can from a wide array of businesses, universities and organizations,” Wray continued. “They’re doing it through Chinese intelligence services, through state-owned enterprises, through ostensibly private companies, through graduate students and researchers, through a variety of actors, all working on behalf of China.”

“We need to focus even more on a whole-of-society approach because in many ways we confront whole-of-society threats,” Wray said, echoing remarks he made at a February 2018 Senate intelligence committee hearing on this subject.

Wray emphasized the importance of information sharing between universities and the FBI. "We've got to share as much information as we can with you, as quickly as we can, through as many channels as we can. We've also got to create mechanisms for you to share information with us."

He also suggested that universities need to be more sophisticated in responding to the threats, even as he said he was encouraged by the steps some universities have taken to try to address the issue.

"I do think that the academic sector needs to be much more sophisticated and thoughtful about how others may exploit the very open, collaborative research environment that we have in this country and revere in this country," he said. "I’m encouraged, actually, by the number of universities around the country that are taking very thoughtful, responsible steps to make sure that they’re not being abused and that their information, proprietary research, confidential information, isn’t stolen -- which is happening, all over the country, and it’s a real problem."

Major higher education groups have expressed their readiness for cooperating with the FBI and other national security agencies to protect sensitive academic research and intellectual property from foreign espionage threats, and many research universities have hosted the FBI for briefings on their campus over the past 18 months.

"Public universities need to be part of the solution," said Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. "It’s all in the context, of course, of universities, and their purpose really is to create and disseminate knowledge. It's in that context that we’re saying, 'Look, the intellectual property that is developed needs to be protected, the ownership of that needs to be protected.' It gets to be, in a practical way, a complicated matter, but our universities around the country, a large number of them have been talking to their FBI regional offices. We of course have been for a year talking to the FBI here in Washington."

Steven M. Bloom, director of government relations at the American Council on Education, said it was a "big wake-up" call for higher education when Wray described universities as being naïve about the espionage threat at the February 2018 Senate intelligence committee hearing mentioned above.

"When the director of the FBI called higher ed naïve, you pay attention," Bloom said. "We’ve worked pretty hard to try to understand those concerns and to respond to them. The fact that he now sees that some institutions are doing that [responding] is a good thing. Higher ed, though, it's a broad community, and it takes time for these kinds of concerns to be broadly understood. The research universities are more likely to get them sooner because they have more direct engagement with some of the science agencies or they might have a vice president for research and they may even have a national lab, so when they hear stuff coming from the FBI director and other national security agencies, they listen, they take it seriously, they adapt. But the broader higher ed community, I think that they’re waking up to these concerns."

"It’s a challenge," he added. "We have to balance the apparent concerns of the national security agencies with our fundamental nature as open, welcoming institutions. The research that a lot of our institutions engage in really feeds off of that kind of environment. We have a lot of international students, we want to be a welcoming place for the world’s most talented students and scholars and we have a lot of Chinese students and scholars. So it’s a delicate line."

Several groups of Chinese American scientists have raised concerns about what they describe as "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 interest." The Committee of 100, a group of Chinese American leaders in academics, business, government and the arts, has also raised concerns that Wray's characterization of China as posing a "whole-of-society" threat to the U.S. implies that all individuals of Chinese descent are to be distrusted. The group said in a statement earlier this month that "in scientific, business, political, academic and government circles, Chinese Americans are reporting being subject to greater scrutiny and discriminatory treatment in their work and daily lives."

Of concern to many in higher education are changes in visa policies that limit the duration of visas to one year instead of the usual five for Chinese graduate students studying certain STEM fields. News outlets have recently reported that hundreds of Chinese graduate students are encountering delays in renewing their visas as a result of this change. In addition, numerous Chinese social scientists -- not physical or biological scientists or engineers -- have had their visas to the U.S. canceled. Many of the affected scholars are affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Asked about visa issues affecting Chinese social scientists on Friday, Wray said that while he did not want to comment on any specific visa-related decision, "I will say that we have seen many instances in which the visa process -- which I think is very important to ensure an open and collaborative research environment, which I have no desire to change, in that sense -- is being abused and exploited," he said. "And in those instances where we have information that exposes that abuse, we want to share it with the right people so they can make the right decisions. As I said, I think that's starting to happen more and more often, and I think you can expect to see that happening more and more often."

Wray also was asked to address a question about Confucius Institutes, Chinese-government funded centers for Chinese language education and cultural programming that are hosted by U.S. universities. At least a dozen universities have announced plans to close their institutes amid growing criticism from lawmakers that they function as platforms for Chinese government propaganda or even espionage (allegations defenders of the institutes vehemently deny). At the February 2018 Senate intelligence committee hearing, Wray said the FBI had concerns about the institutes and in certain cases had taken investigative steps in relation to them.

But when asked about the Confucius Institutes on Friday, Wray downplayed the FBI's concerns somewhat. "The Confucius Institutes are something that we view as part of a sort of soft power strategy that the Chinese government has," he said. "Certainly, it's something we're concerned about. In many ways, a lot of the things that I talked about in my opening comments [in which he discussed threats to research and innovation] are things that we're more concerned about even than the Confucius Institutes."

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