How universities protect sensitive research [infographic]

Universities in the U.S. and around the world are working to protect their sensitive research from foreign interference and theft.

The University of California system, for example, trains all its researchers on ways to protect sensitive information and identify conflicts of interest. Researchers are taught to look out for undisclosed links to foreign governments and activities that suggest foreign influence.

Graphic about steps universities take to protect sensitive research (AAU)

“We take these issues and protecting our research and our work very, very seriously,” said Alexander Bustamante, chief compliance officer of the University of California system, which consists of 10 campuses, five medical centers and three national laboratories.

Universities across the U.S. are taking action on several fronts, from working closely with law enforcement and training researchers to reviewing all foreign gifts and grants that may pose risks. These actions come from the best security practices from the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, which represents many higher education institutions in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Similar efforts are underway in Australia, according to the Australian University Foreign Interference Taskforce.

Protecting sensitive research requires a delicate balance. Academic values such as openness, transparency and international cooperation are an integral part of what makes universities successful. However, at the same time, those very values can be exploited to steal or misuse research.

What is the concern?

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is implementing a strategy called “military-civil fusion,” whereby research and technology that the People’s Republic of China acquires under civilian pretexts is then used to advance military research and development goals.

The U.S. has a “very open system, one that we’re deeply proud of,” Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said in February. But while there are areas where the U.S. and China can cooperate, he said, the U.S. can’t ignore the Chinese government’s decision to “exploit our freedoms to gain advantage over us.”

Photo of Pompeo and quote about China competition (© Costas Baltas/AP Images)Secretary Pompeo laid out several ways that the CCP illegally or unethically tries to acquire research, including:

  • Recruiting scientists and professors to transfer their knowledge to China in exchange for large payments as part of numerous talent programs.
  • Establishing partnerships with foreign institutions on civilian research projects, all while ensuring the Chinese military reaps the benefits.
  • Pressuring Chinese students studying abroad to report back to Beijing on their or their classmates’ research.

Bustamante stresses that “international collaborations are essential to research and the vast majority are not problematic.” But where issues arise, “we are tracking and elevating and investigating” anything that comes up.