Universities, think for yourselves about research funding from autocratic countries

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How is it possible that a country like China can provide funding for research into human rights at a Dutch university institute? It wasn’t until the media problematised the situation going on at the Free University of Amsterdam (VU) that the university acted. Gert Jan Geling, alumn of the Master's programmes American Studies and International Relations in Historical Perspective, thinks that universities' internal mechanisms should work better. Geling, a lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences in The Hague, conducts research at UU into ex-Muslims as an external PhD student.

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Imagine the following: Utrecht University announces it will be setting up a new institute to study democracy and the rule of law. Said institute will be funded funding by conservative American think tanks and the Trump Foundation. It will also have ties with the governments of Poland and Hungary, and a chair, the Donald J. Trump chair for the study of Democracy and the Rule of Law. 

This is, of course, a purely hypothetical scenario. Because such a chair will never be. Because a Dutch university would never take money from American conservative populists to fund a research institute, let alone an institute to research democracy and the rule of law, which are under threat from those same populists. Besides, even if a Dutch university would have such an intention, pretty soon an internal correction mechanism would intervene as I’m certain the reader can imagine the fuss such news would generate. Scientists and students would protest, and petitions would be signed by many, making sure that even if a university desired to join forces with these populists, it wouldn't have the guts to ever do so, let alone let them fund a research institute.

Chinese communist party
The corrective mechanism by universities, students and scientists would therefore work perfectly in this scenario. We should not ever desire to fund Dutch science from these sources. And we all know why. So, it’s all the more surprising that we had to find out through the news that a research institute led by UU Professor Tom Zwart at the Free University of Amsterdam (VU) was conducting research on human rights with funds from a Chinese university closely connected to the Chinese communist party. Although according to agreements made, the scientific integrity of the institute wasn’t threatened, scientists affiliated with the institute publicly expressed relativising or downplaying opinions on human rights - in particular, about China and the Chinese oppression of the Uighurs. 

This news coverage of course caused quite a fuss in the Netherlands, after which VU decided to intervene and bring both the cooperation and the funding to an end. The university justified its decision by saying a "semblance of dependency" had come about.

Readers are probably thinking that VU handled the imbroglio rather well and that this is the end of the matter. But I’m afraid not, as this case exposes a much deeper problem at our universities, of which the issue at VU is only a symptom. After all, how is it possible that this situation only became controversial when the media started reporting on it? Where was the correction mechanism we should expect from the universities, science, and students? Would the university also collaborate in such a way with conservative American think tanks? The Trump Foundation? The Hungary of Viktor Orbán? If not, how come this cooperation with China and Chinese universities did exist?

Global influence
We should then ask ourselves how it’s possible that there’s an institute at a Dutch university that is occupied with the study of human rights, whilst being funded by human rights violator China. And how is it possible that an Islamic autocrat, the Sultan of Oman, funds a chair for the study of Islam at Leiden University? How it’s possible that universities have been allowing this for so long? And above all, how is it possible that scientists and students aren’t massively protesting against these partnerships?

Let’s not kid ourselves. This type of collaboration will continue to happen. China is scattering money and expanding its global influence at universities throughout the Confucius Institutes. Islamic autocrats from the Gulf States have also been scattering money around for decades and various research institutes and chairs have been established by them worldwide, without this leading to much ado in science. That is also the case in Leiden. In the scope of internationalisation, universities are all too eager to enter into this type of cooperation – especially when money is involved – and they’re also all too eager to recruit students from countries like China, as they pay high tuition fees. The fact that China and Islamic autocrats subsequently gain a foothold in our universities is a problem and should make us introspect. How is it possible that this is happening?

Scientific integrity
Is it just a matter of money? Or is there more going on? Personally, I tend towards the latter. Of course, universities can use the income and the desire for internationalisation can sometimes lead them to make decisions they later regret. But the problem runs deeper than that. VU only stopped the money flow from China when there was a social peer review, but the internal correction mechanism was missing.

How is it possible that universities that do work together with China or Islamic autocrats get so little resistance from science or students? It seems as if communist China and Islamic autocrats in science evoke less resistance than American or European right-wing populists.

Academia tells itself that countries such as China or Oman will certainly not be able to take control of them through their funding, because scientific integrity is laid down in contracts. They seem to forget that such countries always donate money for a reason. They are simply interested in spreading a certain message within Western universities. In practice, therefore, voices in favour of them are given a platform and money, and the academic and social debate in the Netherlands is thus influenced. Something science should not want.

Profound introspection
If we want to prevent this type of issue from happening even more often in the future, and the influence of China and other autocratic states at our universities to increase even more, then we will have to become more vigilant, more resilient and above all more critical. When cooperation with Israel does lead to massive protests from academics, as recently happened with a petition pleading UU to stop collaborating with Israeli universities, but cooperation with China doesn’t, then we have a problem. Let this case be a lesson, a lesson for universities, but also for many scientists themselves. We need an internal, scientific correction mechanism against such influences. And to realise such a mechanism, profound introspection, both among universities and among scientists, is much needed.

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