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Faculty question moratorium on Huawei research funding as U.S.-China tensions intensify

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This article is the first in a three-part series examining how rising U.S.-China tensions are affecting the Stanford community. Read the second installment here and the third here.

In 2007, Stanford considered whether it should ban research funding from tobacco companies. Proponents of the ban argued the tobacco industry manipulated the research they sponsored to push a habit that killed millions.

Debate over the proposed ban consumed the Faculty Senate, with each speaker allowed just one minute to sum up an opinion in the lead up to the vote. Passionate arguments on both sides highlighted an intense conflict over how moral judgments should influence academic research. In the end, the Faculty Senate voted 21 to 10 against a ban.

“There are a few things we protect above all else at this University and those include academic freedom and freedom of expression,” then-Stanford president John Hennessy said afterward. “The minute you infringe upon those, you can run into trouble.”

In December 2018, Stanford placed a moratorium on new research support from the Chinese telecoms company Huawei, amid rising U.S. pressure on a firm the government sees as part of a broader national security threat from China. This time, however, no discussion or vote in the Faculty Senate preceded Stanford’s decision. The policy was implemented so quietly that some faculty only learned about it after asking why their funds were frozen.

A formal announcement to all affected faculty did not come until Feb. 1.

“We made the decision out of an abundance of caution,” Dean of Research Kathryn Moler wrote in the email to those with funding at stake. “We are aware of nothing inappropriate arising from past support that Huawei has provided to Stanford.”

Administrators’ communication has left faculty confused about the University’s decision-making and questioning the policy’s wisdom, even as peer schools from the University of California, Berkeley to Princeton enact similar restrictions — and as the Trump administration urges organizations in the U.S. and allies abroad to cut ties. At the time of the ban, Huawei supported millions of dollars worth of research at Stanford and was poised to support millions more. Much of the current funding goes to graduate students through various industrial affiliates programs that will have to kick Huawei out if the moratorium continues.

In January the U.S. government indicted Huawei — the world’s top manufacturer of telecommunications equipment and second-biggest producer of smartphones — with bank fraud, theft of trade secrets and violation of U.S. sanctions against Iran. The concern with the company, however, is much more expansive: federal officials consider Huawei a potential conduit to the Chinese state, because the company produces equipment that could dominate in the race for next-generation wireless technology and also facilitate spying by Beijing.

Earlier this month, the Trump administration forbade Huawei from using American technology without the government’s consent, a serious blow for a company whose products rely on partners like Google and Qualcomm. The administration also barred domestic telecommunications firms from installing foreign-made equipment “posing an unacceptable risk.”

Publicly, there’s been little sign at Stanford of backlash against the moratorium. But behind the scenes, faculty have been organizing objections. They have even created a “moratorium” mailing list to keep people up to date.

Professors pushing back on the new policy argue that worries around issues like intellectual property theft are moot, as gifts affected by the policy support broadly published, non-classified research. Regardless of the threat the government sees, these faculty also view the moratorium as a test case for Stanford’s commitment to academic freedom.

“It is true that there is one odd policy about one company at this moment, but in this context, it’s hard to read it that way,” said psychology professor Brian Wandell, who lost funding due to the moratorium and also sat on the Faculty Senate’s research committee during the debate over tobacco money. “It’s much easier to see it as, we’re part of a thing that’s going on that could be transformational.”

Administrators, meanwhile, remain tight-lipped about the reasoning behind instituting the moratorium, saying only that the decision was based on public information. They emphasize the University’s desire to balance bipartisan concerns about “undue foreign interference” with support for international collaboration.

“No one has pressured the university,” Dean of Research Kathryn Moler wrote in an email to The Daily. “We are committed to the advancement of knowledge and the international exchange of people and ideas, and we also are attentive to concerns about potential risks associated with particular engagements.”

Like most U.S. universities, Stanford gets the majority of its research funding from the federal government — far more than what Huawei or any other Chinese entity offers.  Jeopardizing Stanford’s relationship with an administration increasingly worried about technology transfer to China could thus have far-reaching implications, revealing the tenuous balance the University must strike between upholding international engagement and remaining sensitive to national security concerns.

‘An abundance of caution’

Just before Stanford put the moratorium in place, Huawei was considering quadrupling its gift to a University research group called the Platform Lab, upping it to $2 million a year.

The lab, whose website lists nearly a dozen faculty and more than 40 Ph.D. students, is developing three platforms to enable what the lab calls “Big Control.” The lab imagines a world where Big Control allows us to oversee the morning commute of a million self driving cars or coordinate 10,000 drones delivering packages.

The project’s ominous-sounding name evokes many China critics’ worst fears about academia aiding an authoritarian government, especially given China’s reputation for repressing its citizens through omnipresent technology. A November update to the U.S. Trade Representative’s 301 report, prepared annually to identify trade barriers to U.S. companies, accused the Chinese government of investing in high-technology U.S. startups through state-backed venture capital (VC) firms, with the goal of acquiring emerging technologies in robotics, artificial intelligence, biotechnology and other fields.

But computer science professor John Ousterhout, who directs the Platform Lab, believes that Huawei’s contributions to his research do not pose a national security threat, and that it’s the government’s job — not Stanford’s — to prosecute companies that break the law.

“So what if they have been conspiring with the Chinese government?” he said of Huawei. “What does that have to do with our research program?”

Huawei’s January indictment claims the company has showed blatant disregard for intellectual property protections, giving bonuses to employees who steal competitors’ secrets and even taking part of a T-Mobile robot to learn how it worked.

Huawei has denied wrongdoing. Shortly after the U.S. placed sweeping new penalties on the company, a Huawei spokesperson told The Daily that “it has been a very challenging week” but did not give further comment.

Spying concerns stem from the lack of true separation between the public and private sectors in China. Chinese laws state that Chinese individuals and organizations must cooperate with government intelligence operations upon request, though Beijing maintains that Huawei is not obliged to aid intelligence gathering in its business overseas.

“You just don’t know how modern China works if you think that any private company in China can resist the demands of the Communist Party state for whatever — to share data, to share their technology [or] to share their knowledge of how the U.S. system works,” said Larry Diamond, a political science professor at Stanford who has called for vigilance against the Chinese government’s attempts to influence U.S. institutions, including universities.

Though Huawei officials have stepped up efforts in recent months to prove their autonomy from the Chinese Communist Party, critics are unconvinced. Given that Huawei is not a publicly listed company, it is not subject to the scrutiny that would allow outsiders to evaluate company claims that, for example, it is owned entirely by its employees.

The U.S. is especially fearful of the Chinese government having access to the “5G” networking infrastructure that Huawei is building around the world. Huawei has pulled ahead of other companies in the race for technology that promises to not just boost data speeds but allow all sorts of devices to talk to each other in new ways.

“5G will be, simply put, the central nervous system of the 21st-century economy,” an April article in Foreign Policy asserts. “And if Huawei continues its rise, then Beijing, not Washington, could be best placed to dominate it.”

Moler’s Feb. 1 email to professors affected by the moratorium gave no reasons for the new rules beyond an “abundance of caution,” a phrase that other universities have used to explain new restrictions on Huawei funding. But several professors said that, privately, Moler has explained the decision in more detail. Rationales they said she cited include Huawei’s indictments, national security concerns, the fact that other schools have enacted similar restrictions and Stanford’s network security, among other considerations.

Affected faculty say they have trouble seeing why such concerns would apply to Huawei’s funding at Stanford.

Huawei’s supports the Platform Lab and other researchers at Stanford through gifts, which means the company cannot control how their money is used. The results of Ousterhout and his colleagues’ work are published for anyone to see, regardless of whether they’ve given funding. That’s standard at Stanford, which has long prized academic openness and banned classified research during the 1960s at the height of anti-war activism.

Research programs like Ousterhout’s do offer perks to their industry sponsors. They are opportunities for companies to support work that interests them while building connections with other experts and potential hires. Platform Lab “premium” sponsors receive updates on projects, chat informally with faculty and students, and can send their own researchers to Stanford as visiting scholars.

But faculty contend that concerns about companies’ access via these research arrangements can be addressed. Earlier last year, for example, the University balked at the idea of Huawei’s visiting scholar to the Platform Lab getting access to Stanford’s networks. Stanford eventually let the Huawei researcher come but had them access the network as a guest, without a SUNet ID.  

Electrical engineering professor Andrea Goldsmith, whose research group focuses on 5G, also said that Huawei employees would not gain unique information from their collaboration.

“Certainly if they’re giving me a gift and want to have a discussion about the research that’s being funded by that gift I’ll have that conversation with them,” she said, ‘but I would have the exact same conversation with anybody else that wanted to talk to me about my research, or I’d have that same conversation at a conference when I was presenting that research.”

Many of those conferences count Huawei among their funders. Goldsmith emphasized the benefits of collaboration not just for the telecoms company but for U.S. universities that draw on its expertise.

“Exchanging ideas with them in 5G, which they’re really a technical leader in many ways, is valuable to me as a researcher,” she added.

Randy Katz, vice chancellor for research at UC Berkeley — which enacted a moratorium like Stanford’s on Jan. 30 — has also called such restrictions a “disservice” to U.S. companies and researchers who can learn from Huawei. He told The Daily he held out at first against a funding ban, even as other universities cut ties.

“As a public university, I felt we needed a principle upon which to limit engagement with any source of funding, and suspicions of public officials was not a sufficient reason,” he wrote in an email.

Huawei’s Jan. 28 indictments changed his mind, Katz said.

“These suggested seriously improper business practices on the part of [Huawei], and we hold our corporate sponsors to high standards,” he wrote, though he said UC Berkeley has not placed a moratorium on other companies due to indictments.

Many of the Stanford professors affected by the moratorium remain unconvinced by such logic. How can the University justify cutting ties with just Huawei, they say, when other companies Stanford partners with have acted immorally or illegally?

“Should we take research funding from a company that has paid teenagers to allow the company to spy on their online habits so the company could create software more addictive to children?” Ousterhout said. “That would be Facebook. Should we accept money from a company that has been fined billions of dollars from the European Union for what they consider legal violations? That would be Google, possibly Apple. So the question is, where do you draw the line?”

The University’s traditional solution to this problem is to examine research and funding proposals case-by-case for violations of University policy or export control and information security risks. Administrators cited that approach earlier this year when The Daily asked whether it had reevaluated its relationships with Saudi Arabian government, another major research funder that’s drawn scrutiny at some peer schools for its repressive actions and apparent killing of a U.S. journalist.

Computer science professor Philip Levis believes each professor should decide for themselves how to weigh concerns that fall outside Stanford’s educational mission.  

“I don’t think it’s fair for the University, or any university, to,  when they hire a faculty member, say, one of your jobs is to promote the national security of the United States,” he said of the moratorium. “I’m sure there are many faculty from other countries who did not sign up for that.”

Levis thinks the Huawei issue should have gone to the Faculty Senate, as the debate over tobacco industry funding did back in 2007. His conversations with Moler have “definitely given me some good things to think about,” he said, but he still has questions.

“I don’t know all the facts, right,” Levis said. “It could very well be that this is the right decision. To me the troubling thing is that I don’t really know.”

Rising government pressure?

Some at Stanford wonder if government pressure is behind the moratorium.

Wandell and Ousterhout, who met with administrators in January about the policy, both recalled Provost Persis Drell discussing conversations with members of the government that implied federal agencies might cut research funding for Stanford if it did not pull away from Huawei. The meeting also included Moler and Director of Export Compliance Steve Eisner, among others.

Wandell in particular remembers Drell saying that someone at the Department of Energy (DOE) told her the agency would look negatively on universities that took funding from Huawei and was concerned researchers applying for DOE funding might fail to disclose their ties to the company. Given the DOE’s clout as a funding agency — it bankrolls most of SLAC National Linear Accelerator Laboratory and gave Stanford an additional $26 million in 2017 — Wandell guesses the thought of the agency’s disapproval could be persuasive.

During the same meeting, Eisner said it’s important for Stanford to be “a good partner” to the government, according to Ousterhout, who kept notes of the conversation. Eisner, though, said that the quote “does not sound like” him.

“What I tried to convey in the meeting was neither about pressure from the government nor partnering with the government, but rather that when there are concerns about potential risks in the research enterprise, we need to consider those issues seriously,” Eisner wrote in an email to The Daily.

The DOE did not respond to a request for comment. Beyond Moler’s statement that no one has pressured Stanford, Moler and Drell did not address Wandell and Ousterhout’s recollections.

Though administrators deny government pressure, U.S. officials have stepped up their efforts to communicate the threats they see in Huawei to schools.

In July 2018, the F.B.I. and other intelligence agencies briefed Department of Education employees on Huawei. Two months later, the FBI held a “major summit” with university presidents in Washington that covered the issue, according to Tobin Smith, the Vice President of the Association of American Universities, which represents 62 research institutions including Stanford.

“They’re very careful not to say you should or shouldn’t deal with this company,” Smith told Bloomberg News. “But they help you assess the risk.”

But the government has also leveraged federal research funding to push universities away from Huawei. Many schools ditched IT equipment from Huawei following government concerns over Chinese spying — and a ban on federal funding for universities that use technology from a host of Chinese companies, part of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

The NDAA also calls for universities to work more closely with Department of Defense officials to create new regulations protecting academics from foreign exploitation, potentially limiting universities’ research partnerships and other agreements with Chinese groups.

In fact, a Department of Defense (DoD) official visited Stanford in March for a discussion focused on the government’s concerns about foreign influence in research. The meeting, which Moler said she organized after the official told her it would be helpful to chat with a few faculty, stated in its invitation that “the academic-government relationship is critical to ensuring that the United States remains a Great Power.”

After the meeting, at attendee Goldsmith’s request, the DoD passed on declassified government white papers explaining China’s threat to the domestic and world economy. The papers outline everything from hacking-aided theft of trade secrets to “predatory” lending to developing countries. One of the documents, which focuses on university science and technology, states that academics become unintended enablers of a regime that uses tech and data — sometimes with U.S. origins — to track and persecute its critics.

The DoD official’s talk did not focus on Huawei and “wasn’t super enlightening” about the reasons the government would see the company’s gift funding as a threat, Goldsmith said. But she said appreciated the chance to convey concerns about openness in research.

Ousterhout, who said none of the faculty who have been most vocal about the University’s Huawei policy were invited, pointed to the meeting as an example of how moratorium critics have been shut out of University discussions. Moler pushed back on that idea.

“There wasn’t any selection process and there wasn’t any intent to exclude anyone,” she said.

Meanwhile, federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health have increasingly expressed concerns that scientists may not be disclosing all their foreign ties when applying for research grants. These agencies are wary of funding research for scholars who they believe may share work with foreign groups and governments.

Levis said Moler told him in a meeting that worries about the University’s ability to track gifts fed into the moratorium decision. Gifts are monitored less carefully than sponsored research agreements, as they do not involve a contract, Levis said. He said he’s received emails to the computer science faculty list noting that a gift check has arrived and haphazardly asking for someone to claim it. Moler, however, told The Daily that the University tracks all gifts.

Levis understands why the University would be anxious to keep tabs on money from groups flagged by the government, like Huawei.

“The concern is that faculty — we’re tired, we’re overextended, we make mistakes, nobody’s perfect,” Levis said, adding that researchers may not be aware of all the groups that back programs they belong to at Stanford. “[Say] Huawei gave some money to [an institute], somebody didn’t realize, they don’t put it on the form, and the government gets really upset.”

While many faculty suspect Stanford’s moratorium is rooted in government concerns, they remain frustrated with the administration’s lack of transparency.

“To understand the decision, understand the reason it was made…that’s something that many universities are grappling with right now,” said Joyce Farrell, who leads the Stanford Center for Image System Engineering (SCIEN). “Is this coming from pressure from the Trump administration? The Defense Department? Is this a trade policy issue? When it’s basically based on what seems to be the press or rumors, it’s very difficult not to be cynical and suspicious.”

“The idea that, out of an abundance of caution, we shouldn’t engage with the people who are the best in the world — because of reasons I don’t know, because they’re being kept secret — is just weird from my point of view and a slippery slope,” Wandell said.

Faculty await committee input

On Feb. 10, Moler and other top administrators received a letter signed by about 20 affected professors. The letter urged Stanford to evaluate funding on a case-by-case basis and have a committee with a range of expertises develop general policies that can be applied to cases like Huawei. Wandell and Ousterhout also presented concerns at a March meeting of the Faculty Senate’s committee on research.

Provost Drell announced at the Faculty Senate’s May 9 meeting that two new committees will review the University’s policies around federal concerns of foreign influence on research universities. One committee will report to the Dean of Research about a broad review of Stanford’s policies on issues like researcher disclosures and international funding and visitors. Meanwhile, a subcommittee of the Faculty Senate will consider “how to balance Stanford’s values and non-discrimination in research agreements with concerns about foreign influence,” as Drell put it.

Both groups’ discussions will cover countries like China and Saudi Arabia, Moler wrote to The Daily. But their work will be “broader in nature, addressing our policies related to all foreign research engagements,” she said.

Professors upset by the moratorium see the committees as a step forward and have urged administrators to fast-track a final decision. But they’re still troubled that University leaders would take such an unusual policy step without first opening the issue to faculty discussion.

Moler only told the Faculty Senate’s committee on research about the decision after it had been made, with approval from the President and Provost. According to Moler, there was a “brief discussion” of Huawei at the committee’s Jan. 24 meeting as Stanford considered whether to continue the funding pause. Administrators also met and communicated with a number of faculty shortly after.

Moler told The Daily that the University consulted with the School of Engineering and notified “lead faculty” for gifts put on hold in December, when the moratorium was put in place. But emails reviewed by The Daily show that some leaders of affected affiliate programs and faculty whose funds were frozen were just learning about the policy in late January.

Moler also said that she asked the School of Engineering to reach out to each affected faculty member and summarize issues the moratorium created for them. But multiple professors told The Daily they have not been contacted.

While faculty wait for the new committees to weigh in, the moratorium has blocked significant funding meant to support graduate students and postdocs. Professors The Daily talked to said they will continue supporting their current students, but many are still figuring out how they will make up the difference. They estimated the cost of supporting a graduate student at $75,000 to $100,000 a year.

“Faculty often move their group members from one source of funding to another in response to changing levels of external support,” Moler wrote to The Daily. “Although the loss of funding is a disappointment, I’m not aware of any students who do not have funding as a result of the Huawei decision.”

For some students, the loss of funding meant scrambling to find summer internships in lieu of research projects. Others will take on additional teaching duties. Professors said they may dip into unrestricted research money they’ve saved up.

Administrators have told faculty that, if needed, they can approach their departments or deans for money to close gaps. But professors are skeptical this will work, especially as a poor endowment payout squeezes budgets.

“With this low payout and all the budgets being busted and stuff, basically I’m on my own here,” Wandell said.

Wandell chose not to take on several graduate students as a result of the moratorium. Other faculty who relied on Huawei money are also holding back on new hires.

About half of Goldsmith’s research group was funded by Huawei when the moratorium went into effect. She’s not sure where replacement money will come from: The main funders Goldsmith has encountered for her 5G research are Huawei and the federal government, and she hasn’t seen the latter offering more funding to compensate for universities’ breaks with Huawei.

Gift money like Huawei’s is precious, she said, because it’s unrestricted — in contrast to government grants, it doesn’t come with conditions on its use. It’s also subject to lower “overhead” fees from the University than federal grants, meaning more money goes to the researcher.

Beyond funding difficulties, some professors worry that the moratorium has exacerbated feelings among Chinese students that the University is not combating increasing government hostility toward China and the Chinese community —  despite Stanford leaders’ statements that national security concerns must not feed discrimination by heritage or country of origin.

“I think it’s very difficult to explain this [decision] to Chinese students in a way that doesn’t make it seem as if they’re being discriminated because they’re Chinese,” said Farrell. “It’s really extrapolated from much farther beyond just Huawei.”

Farrell recounted an incident in which one student did not want to contact Huawei engineers inquiring about an open-source software he was developing. His work was not supported by the company. The student did not even want to respond to a request from a Huawei employee due to fear that his email messages were being monitored and could affect his visa status.

“I don’t think he was wrong to be worried,” Farrell said.

“They’re worried about what projects they work on,” she said. “They’re worried about their visa applications… We don’t have an explanation to the graduate students to say, this is why Stanford made this decision.”

Contact Berber Jin at fjin16 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Hannah Knowles at hknowles ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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