Regulatory intelligence for US exporters

Universities ‘Urgently’ Need Guidance on Research Collaboration With China, Professors Say

The U.S. needs to provide universities with clearer guidance on what types of research activities they can conduct and share with China, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said in a report this week. The report, authored by MIT’s China Strategy Group, said U.S. schools face challenges managing outside “pressures” while also “preserving open scientific research,” which risks damaging American research abilities and chilling technology collaboration.

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“The absence of clear, coherent, consistent federal policy guidance regarding research and education interactions with China is disrupting academic decision-making and has harmed the U.S. scientific enterprise,” the report said, adding that an “integrated government policy framework” addressing research security and collaboration is “urgently needed.”

The report comes several months after the Bureau of Industry and Security announced a new academic outreach initiative aimed at providing export control training for universities that have an “elevated risk profile” (see 2206290019). BIS said it has so far identified 20 universities with a high-risk profile, and each has agreed to work with the agency on compliance issues (see 2211150056).

BIS announced the strategy after the Government Accountability Office in June said the Commerce Department should better tailor its outreach efforts to universities to mitigate export control risks in academia (see 2206170037). In 2020, the GAO found that universities sometimes struggle to comply with export regulations because of unclear guidance that is usually tailored toward industry (see 2005120053).

More than two years later, export compliance at universities remains a challenge. The report, authored by a group of MIT professors, outlined several scenarios in which the extent of export restrictions can be unclear, including in “informal collaborations” with researchers from China and other countries.

Those may include “conversations, sharing of ideas, and sharing of data” where “there is no written agreement, no required deliverables, and no funds exchanged between the participants,” the report said. Even though U.S. researchers may assume that they don’t have to disclose those interactions, even informal conversations could “pose significant security risks to the United States,” the report said.

“Administrative oversight of these activities would be widely regarded as undesirable and inconsonant with the idea of academic freedom,” MIT said. “However, these activities may involve researchers at organizations that are on one or more government watch lists, and even informal collaborations need to follow export control and other laws.” The school said faculty and staff “are encouraged” to consult with MIT’s compliance staff whenever they’re collaborating with foreign researchers.

The report also said that even though classes and lectures “open to a general audience” aren't subject to U.S. export restrictions, professors should still be cautious. “MIT faculty instructors in these programs who are working in potentially sensitive research areas should be careful to ensure that they only present information that is already in the public domain,” the report said.

The report also said MIT shouldn’t enter into a “relationship” with any company involved in Chinese government intelligence activities or China’s military, or if it finds “credible evidence” the company is linked to human rights abuses in Xinjiang or elsewhere in China. The school also shouldn’t work on research with China’s national defense universities, military research institutes or defense laboratories at civilian universities. BIS's military (see 2007090075) and military intelligence (see 2102190042) end-user and end-use restrictions prohibit some of those activites.

But other universities may not have the same compliance guardrails, MIT said. Because of the current “strategic rivalry” between the U.S. and China, schools may need to develop “new risk management capabilities” and form a “productive relationship with the federal government” as it considers new research restrictions, including potential export controls.

“But federal policy, no matter how well-crafted, cannot be a substitute for effective actions taken at the university level,” MIT said. “MIT and other universities must draw on their more detailed knowledge of educational and research practices and principles to develop effective risk management processes of their own. These actions will complement U.S. policy and will help avoid the imposition of external restrictions that would further damage U.S. education, research, and innovation.”

The report called the future of the U.S.-China relationship “increasingly uncertain,” adding that attempts by China to gain a technological edge over the U.S. have created a fraught environment for academics. “Now, like the rest of American society, MIT and other research universities must prepare for a period of contentious and potentially confrontational relations between the United States and China,” the report said.

The report said “pressures are building in both countries to erect higher barriers to academic research collaborations,” but warned that too many barriers will be detrimental. “U.S. universities should be prepared for scenarios that would force the termination of” research collaboration with China, the report said, “but ending them today would weaken the foundations of American science, technology, and innovation.”