Concerns about the theft of scientific advancements made in U.S. labs — often paid for by American taxpayers — are not fantastical conspiracy theories. And I would know. Five years ago
, here at New York University, we discovered three researchers whose nonclassified research on magnetic resonance imaging was being handed over to entities in China. We alerted the authorities, resulting in arrests by the U.S. attorney’s office.
Protecting our advanced research from theft should be a national priority. High-tech innovations fuel our economy, produce new jobs, and are vital for maintaining our national security. Universities, which conduct more than half the applied and basic research in the United States and receive billions of dollars in government funding, must play a role. However, the current proposal is simply too blunt an instrument to fix this problem.
First, our research universities need the widest possible latitude to select the best students, because, like it or not, talent is not confined to the United States; roughly a third of U.S. Nobel laureates over the last five years were born outside our country.
Top university scientists need top students both to conduct research and to contribute to the atmosphere of idea generation that advances science. Chinese PhD students and postdoctoral researchers in science departments across the country have proved themselves to be among the most talented. Making them unwelcome would result in two outcomes: The best of them will go elsewhere — Australia’s universities, or Western Europe’s — and science here will begin to ossify.
Second, welcoming international students to U.S. universities is a powerful part of our country’s soft diplomacy. While pursuing their degrees, they are also learning about our national values. Often, they will carry those lessons home; sometimes, as in my own case (a Brit who is now a U.S. citizen), it will lead them to make their homes here.
Third, there’s a paradox here: Universities are mandated to ensure the openness of federally funded scientific research while also improving mechanisms to keep it out of the hands of bad actors.
So, U.S. university research has a thriving tradition of openness and that should not change. Chinese students will continue to be among the world’s most qualified candidates for doctoral-level education, and we will want to have them in U.S. university laboratories, and that is not going to change. And the theft of U.S. research by China or other countries is a real and pressing issue, and that’s not going to change, either.
What to do? Honestly, I am not certain. It is a difficult problem to solve.
But I do know that one of the most troubling aspects of the federal government’s proposal is that it was undertaken without meaningful consultation with the higher education community. And that is not a hard problem to solve.
Until recently, issues such as these have been aired and discussed between the national-security and higher-education communities through the FBI’s National Security Higher Education Advisory Board. That board — which admittedly had its limitations — was disbanded earlier this year.
Before our nation takes steps with our visa program that we may come to regret in hindsight, I have a modest proposal. There is already some movement to create an improved forum at which the academic research community can have a productive dialogue with the national-security agencies tasked with protecting our technology.
We should move rapidly to have the National Academies of Sciences
, which have a deep, historic understanding of both the academic and security communities, convene a forum that includes universities, federal research funders (which typically mandate that federally funded science be open), and national-security agencies. Furthermore, this body, unlike its predecessor, should be constituted specifically to disseminate the outcome of its discussions, deliberations and findings throughout the university community, akin to the kind of guidance that comes from the National Research Council
or the many federal advisory boards.
It is possible the proposed visa restrictions have more to do with our current trade relations with China than with what is happening in university labs. But there is a great deal at stake in sustaining and protecting research programs at U.S. universities. Either too weak or too strong a reaction to the theft of our technological innovations could derail our scientific competitiveness.
This is a moment to bring together the higher-education and national-security communities and get this right.