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The invisible China threat: University intellectual property

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As the White House and Congress rethink and debate the trade relationships with China, American colleges and universities are also reevaluating and amending their own ties with the world’s second-largest economy.

China is striving for a stonger position on the global stage. It has made extraordinary investments in research and development in an attempt to dominate new technological frontiers like artificial intelligence and quantum computing. 

But scientific and commercial advances, on any front and by any country, should not be achieved through the alleged theft of intellectual property, the co-opting of U.S.-funded researchers, and the exploitation of what have been highly productive collaborations between academic institutions in the United States and other countries. 

Recent reports from the national press describe the actions by the Chinese company Huawei to steal trade secrets and obscure efforts of industrial espionage. Within higher education, a National Institutes of Health (NIH) report raised questions about foreign influence on the peer review process and scientific integrity. The U.S. government has been justifiably concerned about these and other events, and we share their desire to protect America and our academic enterprise from the theft of intellectual property, cyber terrorism, diversion of research funding and academic espionage. 

But in protecting ourselves, we must not isolate or cut off ties that are critical to academic research. And that certainly includes Chinese scientists and students, who continue to make extraordinarily important contributions to science worldwide.  

We must not stop the dissemination of knowledge gained from basic fundamental research — sharing these discoveries widely benefits the United States and the world, fueling innovation across multiple fronts.

Striking the balance between measures designed to protect U.S. science from exploitation versus the free exchange of ideas and talent that enables great science, is absolutely critical for U.S. leadership in innovation and discovery. American universities are the world’s best and lead in innovation because they are fundamentally open institutions that attract the best and brightest students and faculty from around the world. Restricting access to that talent will put our research enterprise at risk.  

We must find ways to build and continue important and successful relationships with foreign scientists while simultaneously protecting the nation’s research integrity. In fact, we are already working individually and together to develop our own defenses, based on the specific circumstances, needs, and expertise of each institution. We know the hazards and the risks better than anyone and we’re moving swiftly to act.

Aided by detailed recommendations in a recent NIH report (ACD Working Group for Foreign Influences on Research Integrity) these campus actions include making public any contracts with foreign governments, assessing international partnerships for potential risks and disclosing foreign support for research on grant applications. The report also notes that the NIH could deploy technology enhancements to further protect the peer review process, such as preventing reviewers from downloading, printing, or otherwise sharing materials, as well as enabling the scoring process to occur in a closed ecosystem.

Earlier this year, the American Council on Education (ACE) sent information to campuses that detailed recommendations from the NIH working group and others to address concerns with foreign influences. For instance, it urged campuses to consider creating awareness campaigns for researchers about these types of issues, and asked institutions to ensure that their existing policies are widely understood and actionable — and, importantly, that they stand ready to enforce those policies vigorously.

Make no mistake: International students and scholars make tremendous contributions to the U.S. economy and our campus communities, and it’s vital that the United States remain the preeminent destination for the world’s most talented minds. Likewise, we must cherish and maintain the historic openness that’s essential to the cutting-edge research growing our economy, improving health, and bolstering our well-being as a nation.

We believe the actions our institutions are taking are responsive to the concerns of policymakers at the federal level who want to see measures that protect research with national and economic-security implications. 

Our actions are also driving towards greater transparency about recruitment programs and research partnerships that engage international talent. But we want to be clear, the need for more transparency and information in this area should not be used to target or marginalize specific ethnic groups. As a recent letter from MIT President L. Rafael Reif to his campus community stated, “We must take great care not to create a toxic atmosphere of unfounded suspicion and fear.”

Yes, the United States must guard its doors, but those doors should remain open, allowing us to benefit from the world’s most creative individuals. In fact, 24 percent of U.S. Nobel prizes have been awarded to foreign-born scientists. Partnering on a global scale and attracting the best and brightest in international talent encourages those students and scholars to return to their home countries with a favorable view of the United States and our democratic ideals.

But our colleges and universities must also insist on principles of integrity, independence, academic freedom, security, and intellectual fair play and do what is needed to safeguard those principles. It’s not just our campuses that are at stake, but our national well-being. 

Samuel L. Stanley Jr., M.D., is President of Stony Brook University; Presidential Appointee for Michigan State University, co-author of the ACD Working Group for Foreign Influences on Research Integrity and former Chair of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. Ted Mitchell is president of the American Council on Education (ACE). 

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