Espionage, Chinese Style

“Chinese infiltration of US labs caught science agencies off guard,” blares a headline in Nature, arguably the most prestigious establishment scientific journal in the West. “China has diverted US government funds to bolster its military and economic aims, a US Senate panel says.”

Oh? Do tell.

The article continues:

US science agencies’ slow response to the threat posed by China’s talent-recruitment programmes has allowed China to divert US government funds and private-sector technology to further its military and economic goals, a US Senate panel has found.

Its report, which lawmakers discussed at a hearing on 19 November, describes new details of China’s efforts to infiltrate US research institutions — including contract provisions requiring participating scientists to work on behalf of China.

The analysis focused on China’s Thousand Talents Plan, the most prestigious of more than 200 programmes that are designed to recruit leading academics and promote domestic research.

Despite the fact that many of these programmes were hiding in plain sight, federal science agencies were caught off guard and must now coordinate efforts to protect the US research enterprise, lawmakers said.

To which one mutters, “it’s about damned time.”

(Related story: How Our Administrative State Aids Communist China)

Since the time of Vannevar Bush and the ramp-up of government-funded research and development during World War II, the U.S.  investment of tax dollars has ballooned significantly. According to a Congressional Research Service report published in September:

In current dollars, federal funding for R&D grew from $2.8 billion in 1953 to $116.1 billion in 2016 . . . Notably, federal R&D funding accounts for the largest share of basic research (42.6%) while industry accounts for the largest shares of applied research (54.8%) and development (69.0%). 

Now re-read the carefully worded Nature article. While U.S. regulators are worried about plastic straw availability and the use of manufactured pronouns to protect student sensibilities on erstwhile university campuses, China has been siphoning off basic research funded by U.S. taxpayers—research that is already helping Beijing leapfrog the West both technically and militarily.

An informed citizenry might want to ask why this was allowed to happen. After all, China’s policy of holding the families of expatriates hostage is well known, even (especially) if those expats become naturalized citizens. And it is common knowledge among some university faculty (or at least quietly conveyed in reports that I’ve heard) that Chinese expats seek positions on academic selection boards and have a tendency to favor other Chinese for things like admission to Ph.D. programs in which federal funding advances scientific and technical research. Expats whose families back home . . . yeah, you get the idea.

What makes this particularly egregious is that the problem the U.S. Senate panel reports includes the Department of Energy. DOE manages the federal research labs like Sandia, Los Alamos, and other places where research highly important to national security takes place. But in part due to the fact that the most basic research topics are often unclassified so as to attract the widest possible input into new areas, even those classified labs are vulnerable to Chinese exfiltration of key new research results.

The American public might want to pay attention and ask pointed questions. By the time an issue reaches a Senate panel and gets reported in Nature, things have progressed much farther than one might like.

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About Robin Burk

Robin Burk started her career wearing bell bottom jeans in the basement of the Pentagon, where she had the challenging privilege of interacting with computing legend Grace Hopper, and in Silicon Valley, where she wrote one of the first commercially deployed Internet protocol software stacks. The remainder of her first career half was spent in roles through senior executive in small and mid-sized tech companies serving defense and national security customers in the US and abroad. After the attacks of 9/11 Robin taught in two departments at the U.S. Military Academy (West Point). Returning to the Beltway area, she grew a fledgling research grant program in the new discipline of complex network systems at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, center of U.S. counterWMD expertise, then led a team that addressed national security and commercial applications at a major R&D organization. Today her passion is helping organizations and individuals make the best responses to disruptive tech-driven change. Along the way she picked up a PhD in artificial intelligence and some DOD civilian medals. She is currently being trained by a young English Cocker Spaniel whose canine appreciation for social compacts rivals that of Confucius and his followers.

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