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Chinese access to University research prompts debate over inclusion, national security

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

When the Bits and Watts initiative launched in October of 2016 to design better, greener electric grids, it was a collaboration between Stanford and SLAC National Linear Accelerator, a Department of Energy (DOE) laboratory operated by Stanford.

Today, it’s just a Stanford project. SLAC pulled out because of an industry partner that had been with Bits and Watts from the start: China’s state-owned electric utility. The DOE raised concerns partway into the initiative, recalled Bits and Watts co-director Arun Majumdar, and “we decided it was best … to put at least a little bit of separation between SLAC and Stanford.”

Bits and Watts continues to work closely with China’s State Grid, as the federal government had nothing “official” against the company, Majumdar said. But he doesn’t question the DOE’s decision. He served in the agency for several years under the Obama administration.

“They have information that I don’t have right now,” he said. “I’m not going to second guess them. They’re doing … what they think is best for the DOE and the United States.”

The DOE’s second thoughts on the Bits and Watts initiative illustrate a growing caution toward China from the federal government, which has stepped up restrictions on the scientific research it funds and on scholars who can enter the U.S. Some, like Majumdar, trust that government agencies have good reasons for their shifting attitudes, as the U.S. looks to guard its massive investments in academia from foreign adversaries. Stanford’s moratorium on new funding from Chinese telecoms company Huawei, imposed six months ago, is just one way the University is adapting its policies amid the heightened scrutiny.

Others worry that new government restrictions will erode research institutions’ support for international collaboration and for academics of all backgrounds, undermining a great source of U.S. universities’ strength.

Protecting U.S. investments

Stanford has banned classified research since 1969, when the Faculty Senate responded to protest over the University’s role in secret military research during the Vietnam War. Research that’s not marked “classified” can be shared freely.

As Dean and Vice Provost of Research Kathryn Moler puts it, academic openness — the idea that results are published for all to see — is “built into the research ecosystem at Stanford.”

But U.S. officials are increasingly looking to curb some groups’ access to this research, worried about foreign governments taking advantage of federally funded work at schools like Stanford.

“Our federal agency sponsors, members of Congress and members of the public are concerned about protecting billions of dollars in public investments that support American economic competitiveness and national security,” Moler wrote in an email to The Daily. “They wish to put safeguards in place to defend this investment.”

The University has a responsibility to address those national security concerns, she said, while balancing them with key values of openness, academic freedom and non-discrimination.

Particularly over the last year, federal officials have raised alarm about academics breaking rules by sharing confidential grant application information obtained through the peer-review process, or by failing to disclose all their other funding sources — including foreign backing — as required when applying for U.S. money. An October 2018 letter from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) cautioned thousands of research institutions against inappropriate “foreign influence” in biomedical research; earlier this year, the NIH followed up with letters to smaller group of schools asking for information about particular NIH-funded faculty members thought to have undisclosed ties to foreign governments.

Last year, Congress also considered blocking Department of Defense funding for any researcher who had participated in Chinese, Russian, North Korean or Iranian “talent recruitment programs,” which aim to bring top academics to the countries and create connections at institutions abroad.

The Department of Energy has responded most strongly to concerns about foreign governments accessing U.S. research, moving ahead with restrictions like the one the Department of Defense dropped. A memo released by the DOE in December 2018 restricted DOE-funded researchers working in unspecified “emerging research areas and technologies” from collaborating with colleagues in 30 “sensitive” countries including China, Russia and Saudi Arabia. A second memo in January said the DOE would ban its employees and grant recipients from participating in certain foreign talent recruitment programs.

SLAC leaders referred questions about DOE’s policy changes and their effects to the DOE. The DOE would not say how many people or projects could be affected at SLAC and declined to comment beyond saying they are not yet “at an implementation stage” for the new rules.

Federal concerns over foreign governments’ access to federally-funded research are not new. In 2016, for example, the Obama administration decided to restrict international students’ ability to participate in research on technologies related to national security.

Back then, however, Stanford joined 61 other research institutions in signing a letter to the State Department opposing the decision, warning of the “disastrous consequences” of the new restrictions.

Recent restrictions on foreign researchers have met less resistance from schools and higher education groups, in the wake of a growing bipartisan consensus in Washington about the risks of engaging with China. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in December 2018, California senator and Stanford alum Dianne Feinstein ’55 called the “transfer and theft of American intellectual property by the Chinese government” the United States’ most urgent national security issue. She highlighted examples of the issue in academia, from members of the Chinese military working in American labs to efforts to recruit top researchers back to China.

Meanwhile, many former supporters of engagement with China have become disillusioned with the country’s increasing authoritarianism. That group includes members of the working group behind a controversial November 2018 report from Stanford’s own Hoover Institution calling for “constructive vigilance” against China’s efforts to “take advantage of the openness of American society.”

As caution toward China rises, Stanford has revisited its own policies concerning international collaboration on sensitive projects.

The University recently updated its approach to evaluating federal export control regulations, which mandate that universities working on matters close to national security obtain a special license from the government to employ foreign researchers. Scrutiny of certain research projects that pose risks to information security or carry greater potential to violate these export controls — restrictions on what can be shared with citizens of another country, meant to protect U.S. interests — have been a focus of Stanford’s policy changes in recent years, Moler said.

“It’s now explicit that we will evaluate whether to accept and manage the risks of engagement and financial support,” she said.

Though University spokesperson EJ Miranda acknowledged Stanford’s first responsibility is to follow federal guidance, he said the University hopes to play a role in shaping this guidance, with the aim of preserving openness and international cooperation.

Moler said faculty and University leaders are “actively discussing” concerns around these sorts of research risks and described a balancing act for Stanford. She emphasized her belief that Stanford must welcome international community members, calling them “essential to our community” and saying their research benefits people around the world.

“I think it’s important that efforts to protect legitimate national security interests be carefully tailored so as not to stifle discovery, innovation, collaboration and the greater prosperity they lead to,” she wrote to The Daily.

Controversial ties

Around five years ago, KL, who was granted anonymity to speak about politically sensitive issues, was close to finishing his engineering Ph.D. at Stanford. A Chinese student already armed with a prestigious undergraduate degree from back home, KL was the type of star student who supporters of openness to China laud as key contributors to research.

KL’s academic record also caught the attention of multiple Chinese universities, each of which offered KL a tenure-track professorship upon his graduation. These universities encouraged KL to apply for the Chinese government-sponsored Thousand Talents Plan (TTP), which supplements existing faculty offers with generous benefits, including a one million-yuan ($151,000) starting bonus, housing subsidies and compensation for relocation. It is also the most conspicuous of the foreign “talent recruitment programs” whose members for whom the DOE has moved to restrict funding.

KL calls the Thousand Talents Plan one of China’s highest academic honors, and recipients are often celebrated across the press and social media. But with U.S. officials scrutinizing such recruitment initiatives as potential vehicles for espionage and tech transfer, Chinese authorities have recently sought to lower the program’s profile.

Late last year, China’s Ministry of Education issued a notice on WeChat requesting that all colleges and universities delete information relating to the TTP on their web pages. An Oct. 4, 2018 screenshot of a note signed by the “Thousand Talents Plan Youth Review Team” stressed that TTP recruiters should protect the security of overseas prospects. Recruiters were told to use telephone or fax in lieu of email when notifying candidates about upcoming interviews. They were also instructed not to use the term “Thousand Talents Plan.”

While the DOE stands out for its crackdown on foreign talent program participants, other agencies are watching the TTP closely. In April, the renowned MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston fired three Chinese scientists — all with Thousand Talents affiliations — after the NIH determined they had violated agency rules involving confidentiality of peer review and the disclosure of foreign ties. One researcher shared confidential information from an NIH grant application containing “proprietary/privileged information,” while others failed to disclose their close ties to research programs in China, according to NIH letters sent to MD Anderson.

For KL, who said he never spoke with any government officials while part of the TTP, concerns about the program’s threat to the U.S. seem overblown. He maintains that the Chinese government “does not care what you are doing” when a part of the TTP, and that the forms of technology transfer that do occur are not coordinated efforts.

U.S. officials believe otherwise. They consider the TTP part of a concerted strategy to challenge American tech dominance. In its January memo announcing the planned ban on grant recipients’ participation in select foreign talent programs, the DOE said the programs “threaten the United States’ economic base” by helping foreign governments gain both legal and illegal access to U.S. technology and scientific research.

The November 2018 Hoover report isolated TTP participants working in government labs and private companies as primary causes for concern. The report alleges that these participants often do not tell their employers that they get support from TTP; such failure to disclose is illegal for federal employees and for others can break hiring contracts by presenting conflicts of interest. Official Chinese TTP websites list more than 300 U.S. government researchers and more than 600 employees at U.S. businesses who have accepted TTP money.

Additionally, some Thousand Talents participants receive unconventional offers, according to University of South Carolina Aiken professor Xie Tian.

“The Thousand Talents Plan isn’t a normal way of recruiting talents … the program’s requirements are very strange, hoping that the people work a few months in China every year while still retaining their jobs in other countries,” he told the Epoch Times. TTP categories range from “Young Talents” like KL, which targets scientists under 40 with Ph.D. degrees and requires them to return to China full-time, to “Innovative Talents,” which allows scientists under 55 to be in China for as few as two months each year, for at least three consecutive years.

In 2008, late Stanford physics professor Shoucheng Zhang — whose death last December prompted speculation about his connections to the Chinese government — was recruited into the Thousand Talents Plan, conducting research at Tsinghua University. Unlike KL, who is now a full-time professor at a Chinese university, Zhang did not assume a full-time role at Tsinghua through the TTP.

Stanford professors are required to disclose outside professional affiliations and the sources of their research funding to the University. They are also forbidden from taking on significant managerial responsibilities with non-Stanford entities.

Physics professor Steven Kivelson, who was also a close friend of Zhang’s, is confident that Zhang adhered to these disclosure requirements.

“I have no doubt that all Shoucheng’s dealings were in the open and were consistent with Stanford’s policies and obligations,” Kivelson said. “We file conflict of interest reports with Stanford regularly, and I am sure Shoucheng did as well.”

Beyond the TTP, academics with connections to the Chinese military have drawn particular scrutiny.

Chaofan Zhang, who conducted physics research at Stanford for three years beginning in 2014, was an undergraduate at the People’s Liberation Army’s National University of Defense Technology (NUDT) in Changsha, China. After completing his post-doctoral research, Zhang returned to NUDT, working at its Center for Interdisciplinary Quantum Information Science and telling Chinese-language media that he wanted to “devote all his energy to the military.”

“The issue I’m thinking about right now is how to apply basic research results in the military arena,” he said. The Daily was unable to get in touch with Zhang.

Zhang was cited in Congressional testimony in July 2018 as an example of PLA efforts to send doctoral students overseas to acquire important scientific information for military research. Some of these PLA affiliates have been found to hide their military connections while traveling outside China, but Zhang did not conceal his NUDT affiliation while participating in university research.

“We understand that Dr. Zhang conducted basic research on the physics of thin films that was unrelated to any military applications — and under the University’s openness in research policies, his work here would be and has been published,” University spokesperson EJ Miranda wrote in an email to The Daily.

Striking a balance

Political science professor Larry Diamond, co-chair of the Hoover Institution report on Chinese government influence in American society, believes U.S. institutions need to be wary of programs like the TTP. But he also cautioned against painting Chinese students, as well as those in the Thousand Talents Program, with a broad brush.

Diamond said he doesn’t want to suggest “that participation in the Thousand Talents program is some intrinsic validation [of] collaboration with the Chinese party state.” He insisted that most forms of knowledge transfer — including those facilitated by the TTP — are a benefit for both the scientific community and society.

“I think [TTP participation] should be a matter of public record,” he said. “Beyond that, [professors] might do a lot of good things for China in bringing back medical and scientific knowledge, improving human welfare and raising standards of living.”

But he thinks professors should explicitly disclose affiliations like the TTP to universities. The Hoover report suggests TTP participants should be required to register as foreign agents under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The responsibility for evaluating scientists and the likelihood of them passing on technology to a group the U.S. deems its adversary, Diamond says, should ultimately be the job of the federal government, not that of university officials or professors.

Others agree that such transparency is crucial step toward protecting academic research from foreign misappropriation. Speaking at a February panel about the Hoover report, physics professor Steven Chu — who served as U.S. Secretary of Energy in the Obama administration — said he thinks it is “sensible and rational” to require academics to declare financial ties to Chinese organizations.

Researchers report their sources of financial support not only to the University but also in publications and to federal funders, Dean of Research Moler said.

Most policymakers and scholars concerned about the Chinese government acknowledge that the vast majority of Chinese students and academics come to the U.S. simply to learn, collaborate and conduct research. For these people, the Thousand Talents Plan provides valuable funding for careers in academics and business.

But others have begun to discuss the program without nuance, treating any participant as a security risk. In April 2018, commissioner of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Michael Wessel advised Congress to cut federal loans and grants to all participants of the program.  

That’s worrying to people like KL, who has heard from other Thousand Talents participants that the program has caused problems in obtaining U.S. visas and getting through customs. He said that though most of his classmates stayed in the U.S. after graduating, this trend is changing — in large part, he thinks, due to increased U.S. government hostility toward the Chinese.

Lost talent?

Many at Stanford echoed KL’s concerns about a shifting government attitude, arguing that attempts to safeguard U.S. universities’ innovation from the Chinese government will only undermine it by turning away talented people. Former Secretary of Energy Chu noted the heavy “opportunity cost” of curbing Chinese students and postdocs at February’s panel discussion.

“There’s a large fraction of people from Taiwan, China [and] now India who are part of the technology base of the United States who have actually developed all those secrets we’re trying to keep from China,” Chu said.

Visa restrictions on Chinese students have tightened. In June 2018, citing national security concerns, the State Department started issuing one-year visas only to Chinese graduate students in sensitive, high-tech fields like aviation and robotics — a big shift from the five-year visas given out before. That November, Reuters also reported the Trump administration was considering more stringent backgrounding for Chinese students.

China, meanwhile, is working to lure its students back home after stints at U.S. colleges. For would-be entrepreneurs, for example, cities offer everything from free apartments to health benefits to low business taxes in an effort to net Chinese-born, U.S.-educated talent.

“There’s even sort of this regional competition within China,” said a Chinese student and startup founder at Stanford, who was granted anonymity due to his concern for his visa prospects. “Shanghai, they put up a really good package,” he said, explaining that the city offers particularly attractive perks for students like him who settle there.

In 2000, just one in 10 Chinese students who studied abroad returned to China. By 2017, almost half of them did, according to China’s Ministry of Education.

Among Stanford’s international students, almost 10 percent of undergraduates and more than 30 percent of graduate students are from China, according the latest available statistics from fall of 2017. Chinese students make up nearly a third of all international students in the U.S., numbering about 340,000 as of 2018.

The White House has mulled a more drastic crackdown on Chinese students that the U.S. ambassador to China helped talk down. Last year, Trump advisor Stephen Miller raised the idea of a full halt on Chinese student visas.

Already, though, the uncertainty of one-year visas is making it harder for faculty to take on certain Chinese Ph.D students and postdocs, given the need to work on long-term projects.

“I would never hire a postdoc for one year,” Chu said. Other faculty echoed this sentiment in interviews.

Chu guessed that there are probably a few agents of the People’s Liberation Army among the 300,000 Chinese students who study each year in the U.S.— “one or two or three, or maybe 10 or 15.” But Chu urges the U.S. to approach Chinese students as an asset rather than a liability, and try to keep them in America past graduation, something Diamond agreed with.

“The upper quartile or upper half of Ph.D.s and postdocs [should] have a green card stapled to their diploma,” Chu said.

An uncertain future

As the government sharpens its scrutiny, students and faculty are caught in the middle and wary of what the future holds.

A recent Stanford graduate and startup founder from China, who was granted anonymity due to her concern her statements could affect her company, told The Daily that new difficulties with visas have complicated peers’ post-grad plans. The alum stayed in the U.S. post-graduation on Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows those on student visas to work in the U.S. for up to one year to gain experience related to their studies.

“In Obama’s era, I know for a fact [that] a lot of students graduating … can get their OPT visa in three days, three work days, and sometimes [the] longest is two weeks,” the alum said. “But in our generation, especially in our class, we got our OPT [after] three months, or even longer.”

Other students were hesitant to connect anecdotal increases in visa delays with the Trump administration’s more aggressive stance toward China, saying they’ve heard of such issues long before 2017.

A physics professor — who requested anonymity to avoid excess media inquiry — told The Daily that he’s noticed Chinese physicists have found it harder to get visas for academic visits to the U.S. over the last few years. Of the Chinese invitees who needed visas to go to a conference the professor organized this year, only half were approved. The rest were rejected outright or waited for months and missed the conference.

The professor isn’t sure why, exactly, visa hang-ups have increased.

“But for sure this has a very strong effect in making international collaboration more difficult,” he said.

Kivelson said that, before the new rules on foreign talent programs, DOE employees at SLAC were also strongly discouraged from attending last fall’s 12th International M^2-S 2018 conference on superconductors and superconductivity, held in Beijing. Certain invited speakers from SLAC were also restricted from attending, Kivelson said. A DOE spokesperson said that as usual attendance was “determined based on the program priorities and resource availability.”

These changes are concerning for scientists who believe the vast majority of international academic exchange is good for science and society. Physics professor and senior associate dean for the natural sciences Peter Michelson said that while his research has not been affected by rising U.S.-China tensions, he does worry about how the political climate could hurt collaborative work. Michelson heads an international effort that built a telescope to study gamma rays, a high-energy type of light that has helped scientists answers questions on everything from black holes to the evolution of galaxies.

Scientists around the world, including in China, have used the telescope’s data. A recent joint analysis with a group of Chinese researchers led to an important discovery: a millisecond pulsar, a rare, quick-spinning and high-density kind of star.

Likewise, foreign students, including Chinese students, have made great contributions to physics,  Michelson emphasized.

“The benefits should not be underestimated,” he said.

For students, long waits for visas have left them feeling helpless. An aeronautics and astronautics student told The Daily he spent all of winter quarter stuck at home in China, watching online lectures for his Ph.D. program and coding from afar after an unexplained delay in his visa renewal. When he got his visa at the end of March, he’d been waiting three months. The student was granted anonymity due to his concern his statements could affect future visa evaluations.

Previous visas, he said, arrived in just three weeks. Before, though, as a master’s student, he wasn’t doing research. This time around, he had to submit a research plan as well as information on his advisor, who works with NASA and the Air Force.

The Ph.D. sees little direct link between his research area and national security. But judging by peers’ experiences, he said, any STEM student’s visa could get held up in what’s called  “administrative processing.”

“As long as [the visa interviewer] sees … certain terms in the application, he will think that it will be a sensitive field,” the student said.

Yiqing Ding, a Ph.D. student in the same department, believes he is the only Chinese student in his area with a five-year visa.

The anonymous Ph.D student took his long-awaited flight back to Stanford in early April. The visa came with little time to spare: If the delay continued into May, he would have lost his registration in the federal database that tracks international students. If that happened, the student would have to get new immigration documents, reapply and potentially face another months-long limbo.

“That was really scary,” he said. “I’m glad it didn’t happen.”

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

Hannah Knowles is senior staff writer from San Jose who served as Volume 253 Editor-in-Chief. Prior to that, she managed The Daily's news section.
Berber Jin '20 is a junior history major and staff writer for The Daily. Originally from New York, he enjoys political philosophy, coffee shop hopping, and trying to wake up early. Contact him at fjin16@stanford.edu.