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The Science Security Threat

At gathering of university research officers, federal agency officials document foreign governments' efforts to persuade scientists to engage in academic espionage.

November 13, 2019
 
Roger Wakimoto of UCLA moderates science security panel.

SAN DIEGO -- Some of the university research administrators in the audience seemed loaded for bear, ready to scold the Trump administration officials in front of them for what many academics have perceived to be racial profiling of Chinese scientists in recent months.

Roger Wakimoto, vice president for research at the University of California, Los Angeles, didn't soft-pedal the issue as he introduced the session on science and security here Monday at the annual meeting of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

"We've been told repeatedly that this is a partnership," Wakimoto said of the effort to "protect U.S. science from undue foreign influence," as the session was titled. "If this is a partnership, stopping our faculty at the airport is not acceptable."

Over the course of the next hour, what might have been an uncomfortably confrontational situation took a different course.

It's not that the campus administrators in the room didn't express their displeasure about the treatment of some Chinese faculty members and graduate students. They did, sometimes eloquently.

But two things averted what might have been a train wreck. First, the officials from the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation (who noted that they were at the meeting on a federal holiday that would otherwise have been a day off, which won them some points) emphasized that -- despite the positions they hold and message they were delivering -- they were colleagues with those in the audience.

"The American university system is justifiably the envy of the world," said Chris Fall, director of the Energy Department's office of science. "I could talk all day about great things we’re doing with you, and I would prefer that. But we're here to talk about science security and about threats to our system of labs."

Fall and his federal colleagues -- Jodi Black, who directs the NIH's office of extramural research, and Rebecca Keiser, who heads the office of international science and engineering at NSF -- sought throughout to make clear that they understand how central openness and collaboration are to scientific work. And that the growing emphasis on trying to prevent intellectual property theft (and worse) is in direct tension with those traits.

"We recognize that addressing these [security] risks, these very real problems … must be weighed together with the openness and transparency and collaboration that has always characterized American science," Fall said.

Several people in the audience said they appreciated the federal officials' collaborative nature, which they said showed a marked change from the much more confrontational approach Trump administration officials took on this issue a year ago.

But it wasn't the officials' attitude that most changed the direction of the session: it was the information they presented, which, taken together, seemed to dispel any doubts anyone in the room harbored about whether there is a security threat to American science.

"When I came in [to science policy] in the '90s, we were dealing with nonproliferation issues at NASA, and the funding going to former Soviet weapon scientists," said Keiser of the NSF. "I'm here to tell you that the challenges we're facing today are different, in scope and complexity. As we peel back the onion, the layers just keep growing -- this is the most giant onion I've ever seen."

These being scientists, data and facts mattered more than words -- and the federal officials delivered those.

The presentation by Black of the NIH was especially jarring.

She acknowledged that she and some of her colleagues were themselves skeptical when federal law enforcement officials "came to NIH in 2016 and told us we had a serious problem. We told them to go away," she said.

But three years later, Black said, evidence is plentiful that foreign governments are engaged in organized efforts to co-opt discoveries and ideas from American universities -- in ways that divert proprietary information, undermine peer review and "distort our [science] funding model," by giving grants to scientists on the payrolls of other countries that could have gone to other deserving scientists.

Again, words. But Black had the rapt attention of the audience when she launched into a discussion of China's Thousand Talents Program (see Inside Higher Ed coverage here and here).

Her presentation was complete with slides (which she asked attendees not to share) containing documents showing that participants in the Chinese government's talent-recruitment program were openly told not to tell their U.S. university employers about the program, not to report their intellectual property to their U.S. institutions, and they were being paid in many cases for time commitments of six to 10 months -- arguably making it difficult if not impossible for them to do their U.S. jobs.

The endgame for these arrangements: to move their labs to China, in the meantime extracting information from the labs' work back to China.

Black said that NIH had identified "at least 120 scientists at 70 institutions" that had in some way failed to "fully disclose substantial contributions from other organizations, including foreign governments," failed to disclose financial conflicts of interest, diverted proprietary information or sent information gleaned by participating in the peer-review process to other countries.

"They were not all ethnically Chinese," she said, directly addressing Wakimoto's assertions that the intensified government scrutiny is, intentionally or not, singling out Chinese scholars -- many of whom are U.S. citizens. "We are not trying to racially profile anybody."

Profiling, Purposeful or Not?

One research administrator joined Wakimoto in pressing the federal officials directly on whether their efforts to clamp down on scientific security was resulting in unfair treatment of individuals -- and of a broader "chilling effect" on foreign scholars and graduate students, especially from China.

She recounted stories of one University of California, Berkeley, scientist who had been taken off a flight at Newark International Airport and made to feel "like a spy," and a Harvard University scholar who had been questioned aggressively upon return from China. (Both are American citizens of Chinese heritage.)

"Obviously there is a threat, that is clear," said the research administrator. But "how is this being communicated to the front-line people" at airports and other entry points?" she asked the federal officials. "Not everyone is a bad actor, but there could be some racial profiling happening."

Fall, of the Energy Department, said that there was "no connection" between the Department of Energy and agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection. "There is no excuse for people being treated inappropriately at the border, and it's troubling what you said."

But this isn't about racial profiling, he emphasized. "This is about an organized effort by states, including China, including Russia, to appropriate technology" and other innovations through their work at American universities.

Maybe so, said Wakimoto of UCLA, but other corners of the government are sending other messages -- like that "any Chinese student can be a spy."

"We've got to work on our messaging," he said.

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