Update on US-China research relations, and headlines you might have missed during the COVID disruption

Expert Insight

Update on US-China research relations, and headlines you might have missed during the COVID disruption

As research leaders have shifted focus to ramping up research activity, a familiar issue seems to have reemerged to keep chief research officers on their toes. The drumbeat of U.S. vs. China sentiment in Washington DC has grown stronger, giving way to new policies and positions that will negatively impact U.S. research universities. Some of these dustups make national news, but given the whirlwind of information related to COVID, it is easy to lose track of what is happening on a global scale. This write up summarizes stories relevant to university research leaders monitoring how the federal government is responding to foreign interference and global research partnerships.

The most significant update came in late May when the Trump Administration announced via proclamation that it is giving itself the authority to deny entry or remove specific students and researchers from China that meet certain criteria. The power of this review and action is now centralized to the Secretaries of State and of Homeland Security. The populations targeted are the same as those that have made news across the last few weeks: students and researchers with direct and indirect connections to China’s military, military academies, or entities connected to any “military-civil fusion initiatives.” While this proclamation’s immediate impact is unknown—it does not actually remove any current students or researchers from the country—it follows a pattern of policies, statements, and actions in the escalating U.S.-China tensions. This is just one of many headlines you may have missed amidst the COVID crisis.

War of words over COVID origins further frays research partnerships

The early days of coronavirus in the U.S. were marred by suspicion about the origin of the virus, with claims from the Trump Administration that it may have originated in a Chinese laboratory. While the claims remain unconfirmed and highly contested in the scientific community, the fallout from them has been swift, with reactions ranging from ending one-off research contracts to removing the U.S. from global health collaborations.

Each of these instances demonstrates an attempt to establish the Trump Administration’s interpretation of events as an unchangeable version of the truth—and dissenters will quickly find themselves without funding support from the U.S.

A group of scientists working in the laboratory
  • NIH cut funding to a study on bat-to-human virus transmission due in part to the awardee’s connection to the suspected lab in Wuhan, China. This move has been widely criticized by the scientific community for setting a precedent of allowing political pressures to overtake objective research funding mechanisms and open-ended inquiry.
  • China is not taking these accusations lightly. Among their responses was a proposed boycott of Australian universities following Australia’s call for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. Australian universities, like those in the U.S., have already been hit hard by international enrollment declines, and further limitations from China could further harm these universities’ bottom lines.
  • On a larger scale, the back-and-forth of doubt and mistrust has escalated to the Trump Administration withdrawing its support from the WHO. This move will hamper U.S. university partnerships globally, where the WHO serves as a powerful source of collaborations, data and information sharing, and practical coalition-building.

Increased COVID tensions give way to further trade conflicts and university scrutiny

With escalating rhetoric around the coronavirus and its economic impact, the U.S. and China have re-upped their trade war posturing and policies. The U.S. response has included direct action against certain Chinese entities like Huawei but it also involved a ramping up of investigations into U.S. universities and their connections to Chinese research institutes and talent programs. When coupled with existing international enrollment declines, the impact of these actions could be huge. As prospective international undergraduates forego American university attendance without the prospect of a U.S.-based job post-graduation, enrollments will continue to decline.

By extension, the laser-focus scrutiny on faculty research affiliations will weaken the graduate student and postdoc pipeline, as those students who could not remain in the U.S. after completing their undergraduate work would likely pursue post-graduate opportunities elsewhere.

  • Congressional Republicans are pushing the Trump Administration to make adjustments to the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program. This program allows international students to remain in the U.S. after graduation and work in the fields of study, with about half of recipients working in high-demand STEM fields. The Trump Administration may consider limiting the number of authorizations OPT provides each year, with the justification that doing so gives priority to American graduates in securing jobs domestically.
  • Senators Tom Cotton and Marsha Blackburn put forth legislation that would prohibit Chinese nationals from receiving visas to the U.S. for graduate and post-graduate studies in STEM fields. The SECURE CAMPUS Act requires that recipients of federal funding, including universities, attest to not knowingly employing participants in Chinese talent programs and that those currently in such programs register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The bill is not expected to pass in the House, but many actions regarding immigration can be taken via Executive Order, and so the real concern here may be that, if the bill fails as expected, the President can enact the principles of the legislation anyway.
  • Several more U.S. professors have been charged with crimes related to foreign interference. Charges against professors at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, the University of Arkansas, and Case Western Reserve University have been announced by the Departments of Justice and of Education, most resulting in wire fraud allegations. This demonstrates a continued intragovernmental focus on investigating universities for potential Section 117 violations and referring cases to the Department of Justice to pursue fraud claims against faculty who fail to disclose affiliations with foreign talent programs (and the universities that employ them).
  • The Department of Education has requested more information from the University of Texas System regarding its relationship with several Chinese universities and laboratories. The request also included inquiries regarding the UT System’s partnerships with Huawei, suggesting the probe extends beyond just information related to the coronavirus.
  • A new rule change put forth by the Trump Administration will prohibit the use of American-made software and hardware in the design or construction of Huawei chips. While the immediate impact of this rule change to universities is minimal, it signifies another step in the growing trade war between the U.S. and China. Further actions against Huawei could harm U.S. university’s access to research funding and equipment as well as continue to drive suspicion to those campuses still using any Chinese-made technology.

Race for a vaccine complicated by state-directed cyberattacks

As governments, universities, and companies across the globe raise to create tests, treatments, and eventually a vaccine for coronavirus, they find themselves in the crosshairs of hackers and cyberthieves. While some of these actors work alone, there is a growing charge that certain countries are organizing these cyberattacks to capture critical data or technology before others, or simply to delay and disrupt the progress others are making.

These state-sponsored cyberattacks have become more common and further complicate global collaborative research efforts.

  • These attacks come at a time when universities are especially vulnerable as their IT security teams attempt to protect the academic infrastructure while their students, faculty, and staff are all working and learning remotely. EAB’s own Chief Information Security Officer has been sharing his thoughts with our partners on how they can remain alert to all of the evolving IT threats during the coronavirus disruption.

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