US failed to halt Chinese theft of academic research: report

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Chinese and American flags during US Army Chief visit to the People’s Liberation Army in Beijing, 2014. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/Sgt Mikki Sprenkle)

The US is failing to respond to China’s efforts to lure talent and appropriate industrial secrets from American universities, according to a report from a US Senate subcommittee published Monday which took aim at federal agencies and research institutions.

Why it matters: International cooperation and talent flow in academia has been a main source of contention in the US-China trade war.

Details: The United States Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) blasted federal agencies like the FBI for their lack of effectiveness, and academic institutions for lack of leadership in assessing conflicts of interest. Washington is failing to halt China’s ambitious plans to steal US technology and talent, and lacks a “comprehensive strategy to combat this threat,” the report said.

  • The inherent openness of fundamental research, such as physics, means that the federal agencies have “limited means to thwart China’s extralegal activities,” and this openness must be reassessed.
  • The PSI said multiple federal agencies have not taken adequately addressed the threat of Chinese academic espionage. The NSF, which awards about 25% of all science grants in the US, has not vetted researchers properly to avoid fund misappropriation, the subcommittee said.
  • The FBI has been slow in responding to Beijing’s efforts. It only identified China’s 2008 Thousand Talents Plan as a “threat vector” in 2015, according to the report.
  • Recommendations include declassifying information on foreign recruitment plans and distributing it to universities to aid their screening processes, as well as cultivating a “Know Your Collaborator” culture to determine whether their collaboration with overseas nationals serves US interests.
  • Beijing has pledged to spend 15% of its gross domestic product on improving human capital in the country from 2008 to 2020, said the report citing a 2015 FBI investigation. The subcommittee identified the 2008 Thousand Talents Plan as Beijing’s most concentrated effort to attract foreign talent, which has recruited 7,000 “‘high-end professionals,’ including Nobel laureates.”
  • China’s Communist Party often makes these recruits sign non-disclosure agreements about their research, thus undermining “US scientific norms of transparency, reciprocity, merit-based competition, and integrity,” and forcing researchers to put Chinese interests first.

“For the Chinese government, international scientific collaboration is not about advancing science, it is to advance China’s national security interests.”

—Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations

Context: Critics have denounced the effect of mounting distrust between the US and China on global academic research.

  • Chinese researchers in the US have said that they are facing increasing distrust, making them question their relationship with the US.
  • China continued to be the US’s largest source of foreign students in the 2018-2019 academic year, followed by India and South Korea, according to a report by the Institute of International Education, a non-profit organization that provides research on global education trends.

China became by far the leading source of foreign students in the US following the implementation of the Thousand Talents Plan in 2008. (Image credit: TechNode/Eliza Gkritsi). Data: Institute of International Education