By Dawson Law
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and upheaval of the U.S. university business model, there is a great opportunity to guard against foreign influence as research dollars and foreign gifts become more important while student income goes down. U.S. universities are on the front line to guard against foreign interference and protect the U.S. research enterprise.
Starting in 2017, the United States saw a slow awakening to the challenge of foreign influence in the U.S. university sector. Numerous reports have highlighted that China (and other countries) are systematically targeting the U.S. research enterprise. Addressing the challenge took on new importance under the Trump administration as well as in the U.S. Congress. Since this time, numerous researchers have been arrested and/or lost their jobs from prestigious Ivy League institutions, private, and state institutions. Whether the challenge is spies assigned to infiltrate U.S. institutions to steal sensitive research or dual-use technology, or simply researchers looking to take research back to their home country and claim it as their own, the problem is clear, according to FBI officials.
International cooperation underpins the strength of the research enterprise. Finding a balance between international collaboration and deterring against foreign interference is not easy. U.S. research institutions often trust our foreign partners abide by the same principles we do, though this assumption is being challenged. Given the increasing awareness of the problem and bipartisan agreement to take action, another term of the Trump administration would most likely continue to prioritize these issues. This issue should also be a priority in a Biden administration.
In November 2019, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) produced a report detailing Chinese universities associated with military and intelligence organizations. Human rights organizations have raised concerns about whether any U.S. researcher wants their research associated with Chinese institutions that support genocide, human rights violations, oppression of minorities, and empowering a surveillance state.
Education is dramatically lacking. U.S. researchers, university administrators, and staff remain largely unaware or suspicious of foreign influence concerns. In an era where politics taints even national security issues, some are suspicious that foreign influence crackdowns are an example of xenophobic paranoia and “America First” rhetoric. The evidence is clear: there is a systematic effort to undermine the U.S. research enterprise, and U.S. researchers are on the frontline to stop it. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC), National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy, and other government agencies have attempted to close this information gap through speaking tours, correspondence to the university sector, and increased communication and coordination with universities. It is not clear this effort has yet reached a critical mass to create awareness.
A November 2019 Senate Homeland Security Committee report, “Threats to the U.S. Research Enterprise: China’s Talent Recruitment Plans,” identified three primary U.S. government weaknesses:
- Inconsistent standards and enforcement measures by federal funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation.
- Lack of sufficient efforts to recognize and curb talent recruitment anomalies by cabinet-level agencies such as the Department of Commerce.
- Lack of action and warning of ongoing threats to universities by federal law enforcement agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Some Progress Made
An uptick in U.S. Department of Justice arrests and investigations as well as increased enforcement of reporting requirements by U.S. government agencies has improved enforcement over the past two years.
In more recent developments, Congress is attempting to examine documentation regarding “hidden” foreign donations to U.S. universities who may have taken money from Russia, Iran, and China. Despite all these efforts to combat foreign influence in the U.S. research enterprise, more needs to be done.
More Education, Cooperation, and Reform Needed
The U.S. should work with allies; we are not alone. The Australian government released a study by a University Foreign Interference Taskforce, “Guidelines to counter foreign interference in the Australian university sector,” which provided useful and actionable recommendations for universities. Other U.S. allies such as the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, Japan, Korea, and European allies would be wise to do similar studies and provide such guidelines within their university/research sectors. Close cooperation across universities between countries may provide new insights confronting this issue together.
The U.S. government does not have all the answers, but it owes increased communication and training to institutions to increase awareness and persuade sometimes suspicious faculty of the merits of increased vigilance. Continued prosecutions will make recruiting spies more difficult. “Naming and shaming” those researchers guilty of violating the law should be a further deterrent to many researchers whose strength is their reputation. U.S. government agencies all require slightly different disclosure information, which complicates compliance for overwhelmed university staff who do not always understand the intent of disclosure. Better U.S. government coordination on disclosure requirements, forms, and compliance would aid universities.
The U.S. Congress may be helpful as well by providing funding in key areas where universities are hardest hit if they choose to turn down foreign money. Congress should continue to hold public hearings to create open debate and awareness about foreign influence and to hold the executive branch accountable.
This is a time to rethink the system and establish clear foreign influence vetting procedures. As the U.S. university business model shifts because of the COVID-19 crisis, universities should consider the risks of faculty receiving compensation from countries less friendly to the United States.
Addressing this challenge will take strong coordination across universities and continued U.S. government engagement in close cooperation with key U.S. allies. We are not alone in this challenge. Balancing the importance of international research collaboration with the foreign influence threat is possible. Universities that solely rely on in-house “academic” expertise are unlikely to successfully confront this challenge. Utilizing government, association, and collective university experience seems to be the only way to confront foreign influence. Without a successful strategy, universities and faculty risk their reputations, risk seeing important research stolen or copied, and ultimately risk U.S. national security and economic advantage.