Research with countries not considered free: experts sound the alarm

Library in China. Photo: Pixabay

What interests are at stake when conducting collaborative research with countries that are not considered "free", such as China and Russia? The Dutch House of Representatives talked to three experts and two university rectors about this subject last week.

Heavy heart
“Yesterday I went to bed with a heavy heart”, said Utrecht University rector Henk Kummeling during the round-table meeting. The reason for his distress: an article by press agency HOP predicting what the universities would say at the round-table meeting. According to him, the artile said that Dutch universities think that they need no help from the government when it comes to knowledge security. “Well, that’s definitely not the message I want to put across on behalf of the universities.”

The universities do need help, said Kummeling. One of the things they want is a government portal where they can obtain information about potential partner institutions. Universities sometimes come up against a brick wall when approaching intelligence and security services to ask questions about the risks of a collaboration, which makes it hard to make a well-considered decision. Additionally, the universities would like to get concrete guidelines from the government, so as to assess what type of collaboration they can and cannot take on.

In the previous hour three experts had underlined the importance of security policy. In particular, analyst Joris Teer, from The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, who outlined a stark view of the world. The growing tensions around Taiwan mean that a military conflict between the US and China can no longer be excluded, he said. Should it come to that, the US will have its hands full and will no longer be able to protect Europe against Russia. So it is in the best interests of Europe that China does not acquire any knowledge in the Netherlands that can be used for military purposes.

In the opinion of Ingrid d’Hooghe, from the Clingendael Institute, the government needs to take action. Whatever measures they are taking, universities do not have the capacity to do everything themselves. That would lead to a “waste of manpower” and a “patchwork of opinions”.

The Members of the House of Representatives listened to the proceedings. Harm Beertema, from political party PVV, was especially critical of collaborative research with China. He wondered whether it safe to leave the decisions to the universities themselves. He could not help thinking about the controversial Confucius Institutes with which the universities have joined forces. And not so long ago Groningen wanted to open a campus in Yantai, China.

Tim van der Hagen, rector and board president at the Delft University of Technology, had an explanation for that. He spoke of a “complete about-turn regarding China”. According to him, until three years ago his university was “encouraged to receive as many Chinese delegations as possible and specifically collaborate with them”. Nowaday, almost the opposite is the case, he said.

But the risk of security checks conducted by governmental bodies is that they can take months. Van der Hagen warned that the most brilliant minds simply go elsewhere if approval takes too long. After all, they are welcome everywhere.

His ultimate message was that the universities, with the help of bodies such as the intelligence services, can make their own decisions as they are careful enough. In Delft, they say ‘no’ in case of doubt, Van der Hagen guaranteed. There was no mention of the collaboration between Delft and universities linked to the Chinese army.

His colleague Kummeling (Utrecht) conveyed the same message. Needless to say, the universities do not have a monopoly on wisdom, he acknowledged, “but if we have information, we can do a lot of sensible things”.

MP Hatte van der Woude (VVD) wanted to find ways to keep the door to collaboration open. Most of those present, even the experts, felt that international collaboration is in principle a good thing. How strict should one be, then? Van der Woude is afraid that nearly all countries will drop out if the Netherlands would put security, academic freedom and ethical use of knowledge “to an equal degree in the decision-making framework”. In her view, the Netherlands will have to set priorities.

The issue is complex because there are so many interests at stake. China is an important trading partner and Chinese universities are developing prodigiously, but at the same time the country is also a superpower that wants to increase its influence.

Science exists mainly for the benefit of science, and scientists are eager to foster knowledge and understanding, Kummeling told the House of Representatives. But that isn’t the only interest, one could almost hear the MPs thinking.