More and more research institutions are cutting their ties to Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications powerhouse, either officially or unofficially. And institutions have reasons to be wary of research money from the world’s largest supplier of telecom equipment, given that Huawei’s been accused of serious crimes in the U.S. It’s also hard if not impossible to separate Huawei from the Chinese government.
But professors on a number of campuses are growing increasingly restless with blanket Huawei funding bans, especially on research they say poses zero threat to U.S. national security. Some professors see these bans as an infringement on academic freedom, given that research funders and topics are generally things individual scholars decide. And critics see universities as moving quickly to satisfy political demands -- without faculty input.
At Stanford University, for example, Huawei-backed professors are urging their institution to design a formal funding policy that considers each grant or gift individually. This would allow flourishing existing or promising new partnerships where there is only mutual benefit between Huawei and U.S. interests to proceed, they say. Stanford ceased accepting research funds from Huawei as of early 2019. The moratorium has no end in sight.
John Ousterhout, a professor of computer science at Stanford, has until now received about $500,000 annually from Huawei, in the form of an unrestricted grant. Prior to the moratorium, he had been in talks with Huawei about upping that funding to about $2 million a year -- meaning the ban is no minor loss for his research lab, even at a wealthy institution. About 40 percent of Ousterhout's own salary comes from Huawei funds. He only learned that Stanford put a moratorium on accepting Huawei money after it happened, via an email from a dean, in February.
“It was a pretty unpleasant way I found out,” Ousterhout said. “There was no faculty input in the decision. This whole process is not one that is appropriate for a university, where we do things in the open and make reason-based decisions following arguments and counterarguments.”
Ousterhout said there’s been no general announcement about a moratorium, just the email from his dean of research saying, “We made this decision out of an abundance of caution; we are aware of nothing inappropriate arising from past support that Huawei has provided to Stanford.”
Kathryn A. Moler, the dean, wrote in her email to affected faculty members that she and other administrators “welcome input and new perspectives from faculty members” and would “continue to evaluate legal and regulatory developments, including the court proceedings that will follow the recent federal criminal indictment of the company.”
But Ousterhout said he’s been repeatedly left out of subsequent conversations about Huawei funding.
The federal indictments Moler referenced, unsealed in January, accuse Huawei of stealing trade secrets, obstruction of justice, wire fraud and violating U.S. sanctions against Iran.
More recently, this month President Trump signed an executive order blocking U.S. companies from using telecom equipment from sources considered national security risks. The Commerce Department promptly added Huawei to its so-called entity list, making it part of the order.
Huawei is currently suing the U.S. over the actions against it. A spokesperson for the company did not return a request for comment. Huawei’s founder has denied spying on behalf of Beijing.
No Threat to National Security
Ousterhout’s lab does research on software systems, networks and platforms that enable "big control" of collaborative devices. It also includes a visiting scholar from Huawei -- a provision Ousterhout negotiated with Stanford prior to the funding ban (the parties decided that the scholar would only have guest access to Stanford’s network). So it’s perhaps easy to imagine China using the relationship to steal research secrets or otherwise spy. After all, one Huawei agent is accused of brazenly stealing a test robot’s arm from a T-Mobile lab in Washington.
In reality, however, Ousterhout said, “the work we do poses no risk to national security. The thing about our research is that it’s all completely open source. We don’t do classified research or proprietary research.” The visiting scholar also is rarely on campus.
Put another way, if China wanted information from Ousterhout’s lab, it could find it, in an online repository or published research. And if China really wanted to hack Stanford’s network, it could probably send someone on campus with a laptop to do so, Ousterhout said.
In national discussions about Huawei’s increased funding to U.S. institutions, some have asked why Huawei would pour money into U.S. institutions if there really are no strings attached. But the same could be asked about any gift from a foundation or company with an agenda beyond basic research. At Stanford in 2007, the faculty participated in a vigorous debate about funding from tobacco companies and decided against a blanket ban. Weighing the pros and cons of accepting tobacco money for research is left to individual scholars.
Moler, the Stanford dean, said this week that she didn’t know how long the moratorium would last. Two committees are currently reviewing “a broad set of issues,” she said, and “may make recommendations” on Huawei.
The ongoing discussions include academic freedom, openness in research and nondiscrimination in research agreements, Moler said.
“Our policies and practices always must protect our research integrity and maintain our ability to engage in the exchange of people and ideas that leads to new knowledge,” she said. It’s also important to “continually review, update and improve our policies and practices.”
Questions About Outside Pressure and Public Perception
Some professors worry that the federal government is putting pressure on institutions to cut off Huawei or risk federal funding. The mounting trade war with China only adds to that suspicion. The Federal Bureau of Investigation did meet with university leaders at a September 2018 summit to discuss research security. Huawei was discussed, but those present have said the meeting was informational only.
A spokesperson for the University of California at San Diego said it will not accept or enter into any engagement, agreement, gift or funds from foreign entities identified in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, until further notice. Section 889 of the act, which prohibits certain telecom and video surveillance services or equipment, mentions Huawei by name.
San Diego's decision was made after “broad campus consultation” and preliminary guidance from federal agencies, the university said. It’s working with the university system to conduct a full inventory of Huawei equipment on campus and address any issues ahead of the act's mid-2020 deadline.
Moler, at Stanford, said her university made its decision based on publicly available information.
“No one has pressured the university,” she said. “We are committed to the advancement of knowledge and the international exchange of people and ideas, and we also have a responsibility to be attentive to potential risks associated with particular engagements.”
Brian Wandell, Isaac and Madeline Stein Family Professor of Psychology at Stanford, said he learned of the Huawei moratorium only after some of his funding was held up. The loss of several hundred thousand dollars translates to two fewer graduate student hires to his lab, as each research assistant costs about $80,000 annually. Like Ousterhout, Wandell said his research poses no threat to national security, as it’s all open-source work on photographic software that helps design cameras. The work might happen faster with Huawei’s backing. But it would still happen and be available to anyone, anywhere in the world.
Beyond the immediate impact on his lab and lack of faculty consultation prior to the moratorium being announced, Wandell said he worried about the message the Huawei ban was sending to international students -- especially “brilliant young kids” from China.
“They perceive the U.S. as behaving in a way that advances science, and as promoting our world moving forward together,” he said. “I’ll take the hit of the money. But I want Stanford’s leadership to show in a great way here.”
Asked what he thought was driving Stanford’s action on Huawei, Wandell said he had to take the university at its word. But he noted that it’s not currently banning research funds from other complicated sources, such as those from Saudi Arabia.
Bans on Huawei Funds Nationwide
Beyond Stanford and San Diego, institutions including the Universities of Illinois, Minnesota and Washington, Ohio State University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University and the University of California, Berkeley, along with the University of Oxford, have stopped accepting Huawei money. Many institutions have stopped using Huawei equipment on campus, as well.
Princeton told Huawei in January that it wouldn’t accept the third and final $150,000 installment of a grant in support of computer science research, for example. It declined to elaborate on why this week. MIT last month announced a new review process for international proposals with “elevated risk,” involving China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, and said that it would not accept new engagements or renew existing ones with Huawei or ZTE, another Chinese telecom company. In so doing, it cited federal investigations regarding violations of sanction restrictions.
Ed Lazowska, Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering at Washington, who is currently working with Huawei funding, said he’d seen no official announcement about his institution's moratorium on future grants. He said he worries about a loss of future research money and a “loss of collaboration with our partners” in Huawei's Seattle engineering office.
“This has been an outstanding partnership,” he said.
At the same time, Lazowska said, he accepted universities’ “reputational” arguments against working with controversial funding sources, such as the Sackler family, which is implicated in the opioid epidemic, and tobacco companies.
“Individuals I trust who have very high levels of security clearance have examined the intelligence and become convinced that the U.S. government is justified in believing that Huawei represents a threat,” he said. “Not the Huawei folks we interact with, who are terrific, but the company as a whole.”
Toby Smith, a policy expert with the Association of American Universities, said that from his vantage point, individual institutions are “really assessing the risks versus the benefits of continuing to accept or taking future funds from Huawei.” But he said that the recent inclusion of Huawei on Commerce’s entity list, or blacklist, "virtually ensures" that universities will not be willing to accept funds from the company or its affiliates. Universities "screen against the entities list and usually avoid doing business or accepting funds from organizations on the list," he said.
Randy Katz, vice chancellor for research at Berkeley, agreed that the placement of Huawei and 68 of its non-U.S. subsidiaries on the entity list “definitely makes university engagement with the firm for collaborative research much more complicated.”
One complication is that the majority of Berkeley’s collaborations are with Futurewei, a U.S.-based subsidiary that is not on the list, for instance. And export controls don’t apply to published material and fundamental research, he said.
Still, under “an abundance of caution,” Katz said, Berkeley has instructed its principal investigators to avoid technical discussions with Huawei personnel. And Futurewei has agreed not to share the results on pre-publication work with anyone who isn’t a U.S. citizen or permanent resident working in the U.S.
Katz said he’s involved in drafting a university system-wide response. But Berkeley has placed a moratorium on accepting incremental funding from Huawei and Futurewei for now. It adopted a moratorium on new Huawei-funded projects with the January indictments.