Foreign Influences on Research Integrity: A Legitimate Threat or an Overreaction?

By: Om Patel

In 1979, an international agreement between US President Jimmy Carter and China’s political leader, Deng-Xiaoping, sparked larger-scale science and technology collaboration between US and China.[1] The deal was struck to benefit both countries. For China, a partnership with the US meant its scientists would be exposed to innovative Western practices, thus enhancing its technological capabilities and strengthening its economic clout; for the US, the arrangement meant access to a highly-skilled talent pool and the opportunity to collaborate in important scientific discovery in a nascent foreign market.[2]

Since 2000, the dynamic of the partnership has shifted as China’s spending on research and development has seen an eightfold increase, while US spending on research has not kept pace.[3] Faced with a shortage of research funds, American universities flocked to foreign countries for funding and talent, and China supplied.[4] As a result, Chinese graduate students began to fuel many publications in prominent science journals, and by 2018, China emerged as the US’s top research collaborator.[5] The seemingly symbiotic partnership had one major problem: many American universities could not account for the extent of their faculty’s involvement with the foreign sources.[6] For example, some universities did not know which professors were even participating in programs hosted by Chinese universities and some faculty members failed to report their foreign research to US granting agencies.[7]

The loose and decentralized relationship with China has been viewed as the source of recently research integrity violations by faculty at major research universities.[8] As a result of these alleged breaches and the geopolitical tensions of the two countries, in March 2018, the Council on Foreign Relations cautioned higher education leaders that if they did not develop rules to govern their relations with the Chinese government, Congress or the executive branch would.[9]

The warning has put significant pressure on the National Institute of Health (NIH) to ensure that the research community is fully aware of the threats of foreign influence and that universities that receive NIH-funding are taking the requisite steps to protect their work. This includes identifying approaches to ensure that research interests are accurately reported and safeguarded and additional steps are taken to protect the integrity of the peer review process.[10] In addition, the State Department has also put restrictions on Chinese students seeking visas to study in certain research areas and the Departments of Energy, Defense, and Commerce have announced plans to cut back research in “sensitive” countries to protect technology from theft and to tighten export controls.[11]

According to many academic leaders, however, the government’s protectionist messaging undervalues the long-held contributions and productive relationships with foreign scientists and undermines our ability to attract scientists from all over the world.[12] Furthermore, they believe that the political rhetoric surrounding the government’s guidance seems to improperly taint all Chinese scholars as threats to academic research integrity.[13]

As geopolitical tensions between the US and China escalate, are both countries setting the stage for another Cold War? Though it may be too early to tell, both countries are well aware of the stakes: the nation that most quickly develops and sells leading technology and innovations (i.e., artificial intelligence, the internet of things, electric and autonomous vehicles, and 5G connectivity) will be the dominant nation moving forward and each will vie to the bitter end to wield that control.



[1]                Lindsay Ellis & Nell Gluckman, Partners No More?, Chron. of Higher Educ., June 7, 2019, at A2.

[2]                Id.

[3]                Id. at A4.

[4]                Id. at A2.

[5]                Id.

[6]                Id.

[7]                Id.

[8]                In 2015, Tianjin University professors who earned their PhD’s at the University of Southern California were charged with stealing trade secrets that could bolster military operations; a former Chinese Duke University researcher was believed to have stolen “invisibility cloak” military technology that could shield objects from detection. See id.

[9]                Id. at A3.

[10]              Jeffery Balser, et al., Nat’l inst. of health, ACD Working Group for Foreign Influence on Research Integrity 12–13 (2018).

[11]              In April 2018, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) said it would start more carefully scrutinizing “elevated risk” collaborations between its faculty members and people or entities in China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. MIT along with Cornell and Stanford are also beginning to reject Chinese money for research and halting any new research agreements with Chinese corporations. See Ellis & Gluckman, supra note 1, at A5.

[12]              Id. at A4.

[13]              Id. at A5.

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