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Science as War by Other Means

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NEW YORK – March 19, 2019

From now on, scientists working in the United States in any scientific laboratory departments will not be able to participate in the programs if it turns out the research was sponsored by China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.

In the US, there are several sources for financing science, but the main ones are the National Foundation for Scientific Research, the National Institute of Health, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy. The last two were originally going to deprive all who ever participated in mega-grant programs of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea of financing for life.

At first, all those who received such mega-grants were blacklisted, and later the wording was slightly embellished -- now the question of whether to deny funding a scientist for life will not be decided automatically, but on a case-by-case basis. For the other two organizations, the bans on participation in mega-grants of these four countries are much softer: Only the currently active mega-grants are taken into account, and the scientist is obliged to provide all information about his participation.

There are various reasons for this. The main blow, of course, is directed against China. The US government is seriously worried that the Chinese will take over the technological leadership in the world. China consistently ranks second in science in the world, but there are also areas where the Chinese are undisputed leaders. They are also already the second (after the US) in terms of funding science, and when taking into account the purchasing power of the yuan -- the first. In another 10-15 years and China will overtake the US on all fronts. Of course, by introducing restrictions for scientists on their territory, the US authorities did not voice their real fears but announced the increasing incidence of espionage and theft of technology from China.

As government efforts to restrict the American Academy’s ties to two Chinese organizations gather steam, many of the country's best schools have done just that.

Huawei Technologies, the private global Chinese tech giant, and Confucius Institute, a Beijing-linked body that promotes China's language and culture, have been targeted by US lawmakers and numerous federal departments for very different reasons, but the American government believes both undermine its interests.

Huawei, which now makes headlines daily owing to Canada's detention of the company's chief financial officer at Washington's request, rapidly emerged as a global competitor to US tech giants including Cisco Systems and Apple. Confucius Institute's direct ties to the Chinese central government have sparked complaints from American professors, who see in the organization a soft-power play to curtail academic discussion of subjects that Beijing tries to bury.

Stanford University, University of California's flagship Berkeley campus, and other schools made their decisions to cut ties with Huawei quietly, with media reports about them trailing internal announcements by days or weeks. But many others, including Harvard University, are still mum.

The silence within the Academy about their connections with Huawei and Confucius Institute may signal an inability to assess the legality of these ties and the consequences of declaring a break with them. These decisions are being made in a political climate of growing concern and suspension about China, encouraged by the Trump administration, during a trade war and national security debate that have brought Washington-Beijing relations to a low ebb.

Engagement with China is perhaps the only current political issue uniting Republicans and Democrats. Unfortunately for schools with China ties, Washington is united against these connections.

US universities are shunning research money from Huawei

Huawei's primary connection to American universities is through the Huawei Innovation Research Programme (HIRP), which the company calls a global initiative “to identify and support world-class, full-time faculty members pursuing innovation of mutual interest.”

But American universities no longer want to participate.

Princeton cut new funding ties with Huawei last year, said Ben Chang, the school's director of media relations, and in January “informed Huawei we would not accept the third and final $150,000 installation of a gift in support of computer-science research, which was our only active Huawei-supported project.”

Stanford ”has established a moratorium on new engagements, gifts, affiliate membership fees and other support from Huawei," the school said in an email to SCMP.

Harvard no longer has relationships with Huawei after the company's funding of two faculty members ended, according to a person familiar with the situation, who requested anonymity because of a lack of clearance to speak publicly on the matter. The timing for these severances is unclear.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Chicago, University of California-Los Angeles, Massachusetts Institute of Technology – all cited by Huawei as HIRP collaborators – have cut their programs and did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, efforts to cut Huawei's other relationships to the American Academy continue.

The Protect Our Universities Act, introduced last week by Representative Jim Banks, an Indiana Republican, would establish a task force, led by the US Department of Education, to maintain a list of "sensitive” research projects, including those financed by the Defence and Energy departments and US intelligence agencies.

The proposed body would monitor foreign student participation in those projects. Students with past or current Chinese citizenship would not be allowed access to the projects without a waiver from the director of national intelligence. The act also calls for the intelligence director to create a list of foreign entities that “pose a threat of espionage with respect to sensitive research,” and stipulates that Huawei is included.

No evidence has surfaced that Huawei has given the Chinese government advanced US technologies that could be deployed militarily or otherwise threaten American security interests. Even so, US lawmakers are acting on the theory that this is China's intent.

A US Defence Department report first circulated in Congress in 2017 focused on efforts by Huawei and other Chinese tech companies to acquire technology through collaborations with American universities. The report was the catalyst for the rare bipartisan consensus that these ties need monitoring.

Congress passed legislation last year to strengthen the federal government's oversight of foreign investment in the US tech sector – a move directed at Chinese companies. Still, no similar action has been taken yet in the Academy, where Huawei collaborations have surged in recent years.

Oxford says two Huawei projects will continue but new grants suspended

The University of Minnesota, considered one of America's “public Ivies” – a state-funded university rated on par with many of the country's best private colleges – cut ties with Huawei and Confucius Institute last month.

Minnesota isn't the first university to cut ties with Huawei and Confucius Institute, and will not be the last, said James Lewis, a former foreign service officer who is now a senior vice-president at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.

More than just the current case, Lewis said, “Huawei's track record is deeply troubling to the US government." He cited several laws charging Huawei with corporate espionage, including a federal civil case brought by Motorola that was settled in 2011 for undisclosed terms.

Court files in that case described one defender who was stopped by customs offices before a flight to Beijing with “over $30,000 in cash” and “more than 1,000 electronic and paper documents identified as the property of Motorola, including valuable, proprietary information and trade secrets.”

The lawsuit described a years-long effort to steal Motorola technology that allegedly helped Huawei develop and market advanced cellular base stations.

David Du, director of the multi-university Center for Research in Intelligent Storage (CRIS), of which University of Minnesota is a member, made a similar point. Huawei is one of the center's nine corporate sponsors, along with Intel, HP and other global tech firms. Each sponsor gets equal access to the research results, making it difficult for Huawei to win any advantage over competitors.

"We follow exactly the regulations of the US National Science Foundation, and the goal of the centre is working together with industry to do research. It doesn't matter if you're a foreign company or a domestic company,” Du said.

"Since this is totally open, there's no trade secrets or special technologies not shared with” CHRIS's American corporate sponsors.

Lewis of CRIS notes that only research project results become public. Working with individual researchers, sponsors of CRIS and other academic research consortia theoretically have access to data sets and other information generated by a research project that never make it into the final report.

”The published product doesn't cover the entire scope of work, " Lewis said. "So there's a real concern that Huawei's involvement and the presence of Chinese researchers is a source of illicit technology leakage.”

Whether Huawei or other sponsors have acquired marketable technologies through CRIS, graduate students streaming to further their computer science careers can get caught in the middle. And, as Lewis suggests, Chinese students are more vulnerable to the stigma.

At the same time, intellectual property theft is unlikely to surprise anyone: in the high-tech world, unfortunately, they have been stolen and will always be stolen. This is done by all countries, and there is simply no “clean” one.

But spy mania is a very different process and to launch this “witch hunt” is extremely dangerous, and the US knows it from their own experience. They know, but they do it anyways. Why? Because they’re afraid.

At the same time, they’re not so much worried about copying technologies -- this is unpleasant, but customary -- as the fact that the US is losing its leadership in technology, and that means money and power too.

But most annoying is the fact that the US itself nurtured Chinese science -- by 90% -- the PRC raised its scientific and technological potential thanks to the work of foreign specialists, primarily from the US (first of all, the Chinese diaspora in the US, as well as the American scientists of non-Chinese origin). And China still needs foreign specialists, but the day is near when China’s dependence will disappear.  The question is, is the US too late with the current sanctions in the world of science or not?

The emphasis in this field is on banning American scientists from helping the Chinese catch up in a number of scientific fields. The expectation is that it will be possible to completely slow down the process and maintain the current advantage for some time.

Though probably, nothing will come of it. The US could achieve the desired effect by pumping money into its own science and thereby keeping scientists from traveling to China. After all, many go to China, no matter how cynical it sounds, to work! And all because the standard of living of American scientists is declining: Prices and taxes are raising, while wages, on the other hand, are growing slowly, and in some states not at all.

Obtaining funding and equipping laboratories in the US is already a very non-trivial task, and it seems that over time this complexity will only increase. In China, you get all this with much less difficulty. The problem is that the US can no longer afford to flood their science with money -- they have attracted too many scientists from all over the world; they don’t have enough “carrots” at all, so they have to use the “stick.”

Only one stick often gives the opposite effect. Today, a significant percentage of the best American brains are working with China. If all that the US can give them today is a stick, then scientists will think about moving to Europe or to China, for example. It is likely that, by applying force, the US authorities will stop the development of their own science.

Author: USA Really