UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: NPR.
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SALLY HERSHIPS, HOST:
Last year, the Senate held a hearing on Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election. Most of the focus was on cybersecurity, hackers, that kind of thing. But then, Senator Marco Rubio asked the FBI Director Christopher Wray a question.
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MARCO RUBIO: Let me ask you. What, in your view, could you say in this setting is the counterintelligence risk posed to U.S. national security from Chinese students, particularly those in advanced programs, in the sciences and mathematics?
CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:
Now, Rubio is worried that within the ranks of Chinese graduate students specifically, there might be some who are spies. FBI Director Wray then responds that he thinks that the threat is broader, that the overall American university system risks becoming a target of spying and a conduit of propaganda for the Chinese government.
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CHRISTOPHER WRAY: Whether it's professors, scientists, students, we see in almost every field office that the FBI has around the country. It's not just in major cities. It's in small ones, as well.
HERSHIPS: Wray goes on to say that we're naive if we don't think this is already happening, and he brings up a really important idea for the academic world and for America's economy - openness.
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WRAY: They're exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere.
GARCIA: And economically, openness is huge. It has benefits. It basically means freedom - the freedom of professors to work with other professors, to collaborate, to share research, to publish papers together. It lets American schools charge high tuition to foreign students. It helps draw in new students and research money.
HERSHIPS: But that research money is what the FBI is so worried about. According to the Education Department, during the last school year, more than $1.3 billion in gifts and contracts rolled into U.S. campuses from other countries, and China gave the most. So the FBI is worried that money that comes with Chinese researchers is really coming from China, which is trying to get its hands on top-secret American research. Now, American schools are being investigated, and the academic world is in a tizzy.
I'm Sally Herships.
GARCIA: And I'm Cardiff Garcia. Welcome to THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. On today's show, the economic stakes of one of the country's national security battles with China, the influence of financing research in America's colleges and universities.
HERSHIPS: One of the U.S. government's big concerns is that China is spending money to fund research for professors but not disclosing that fact.
GARCIA: And to be clear here, we are not talking about tuition dollars. We're not talking about the money that students pay to attend America's colleges and universities.
HERSHIPS: Totally not. Instead, we are talking about research dollars but where American schools and professors wouldn't know that the research they were working on could end up in the hands of the Chinese government.
STEPHANIE SEGAL: I think the concern is that it wouldn't be a fair fight...
HERSHIPS: Stephanie Segal is a senior fellow at CSIS, the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It's a nonpartisan think tank.
SEGAL: ...If there is a strategy on the part of China to fund researchers that can come to the United States or fund research in collaboration with U.S. research partners where those ties are not disclosed and where it's not understood by both sides what that relationship is.
GARCIA: So imagine a lab that's based at a university, on a college campus, where something high-tech and maybe top-secret, like artificial intelligence or quantum computing or robotics, is being researched by international scientists and professors. Well, one of the issues the U.S. government is worried about is just theft, the possibility that a Chinese scholar or professor could, in reality, be a spy and that the research could end up being stolen for use by the Chinese government.
HERSHIPS: Now, there is a trade war going on with China, and you might think that's where these current problems have their roots. But actually, this starts way earlier - all the way back in 1965, when Lyndon Johnson signed the Higher Education Act. It's a federal law that covers everything from financial aid to work study jobs for students. But at the time when the law was written, the country was right in the middle of the Cold War, and everyone was kind of freaked out.
GARCIA: So back in the mid-1980s, some new text got wedged into the Higher Education Act. That new text was known as Section 117. And this new part of the law required colleges and universities to disclose all gifts from or contracts with a foreign government or entity of at least $250,000. The government was worried that our enemies were everywhere, even on college campuses.
HERSHIPS: But for the next approximately 3 1/2 decades, pretty much nothing happens. Everyone just ignores this law.
GARCIA: Yeah, they don't comply. They don't make those required disclosures until this summer, when the Department of Education began investigating four schools - Cornell, Georgetown, Rutgers and Texas A&M - because the Department of Education was worried that those schools were not adhering to Section 117 of the Higher Education Act; they were not making those disclosures.
SEGAL: At the root of the concern is, where is this research and the technologies that come out of it? Where might they give an adversary some sort of advantage - military advantage over the United States?
GARCIA: Stephanie says that where China differs from other countries that the U.S. might have been worried about in the past is its size. Its population is over a billion people.
SEGAL: The scale of Chinese researchers coming to the United States is really unprecedented.
HERSHIPS: And this is where we get to those foreign-funded government research projects that we don't know are foreign government-funded, the ones that are the problem. And it's where we get to this really important idea we talked about earlier - openness, which affects both schools and America's economy.
SEGAL: So in general, when you think about the United States, you think about our economy, our system, our media, our education, it is largely predicated on the principle of openness. So we have prized openness across all of those areas. Increasingly, you're seeing an assessment that that openness, while it's a source of strength to the United States, is sometimes being used strategically against us.
GARCIA: Stephanie says that the Chinese government's attempts to get its hands on secret American technology is not an empty threat. China has a plan that it's talked about before and that we've covered on this show. It's called Made in China 2025. And this is China's big push to go high-tech in its economy and to someday dominate industries like artificial intelligence and robotics. But for the U.S. to fight back within the open world of academics, it's kind of complicated because if you get it wrong, you risk creating a xenophobic atmosphere at schools. And that can do all kinds of damage.
HERSHIPS: Back in 2015, the Justice Department arrested a physics professor at Temple University. His house was raided at dawn by FBI agents. He was accused of sharing secret research with China, but the government had it wrong. He was innocent.
GARCIA: And according to the National Association of International Educators, there's been a 10% drop in new international students to the United States over the last couple of years. That adds up to real money for those schools - about $5.5 billion in lost revenue. Some schools have even taken out insurance policies to protect themselves against such a loss.
HERSHIPS: And when you add up all of these possible losses - lost tuition dollars from foreign students; the loss of potential collaboration, of shared research, the kind you need to get innovations in technology and science - and when you try to balance that with the concerns of the federal government - the ones it has about China trying to take advantage of America's openness - it leaves both the schools and the government with one big question.
SEGAL: And so the real question here is, how do you achieve this balance where you preserve that openness and all of the benefits that come with it, but you are aware of and screening for those isolated areas where there could be a threat that is actually posed from that very openness?
GARCIA: Stephanie says U.S. schools really do need to maintain their openness, and those schools should also ask for a little bit more clarity about concerns and risk from the U.S. government because the government has been a little bit vague. She says the worst-case outcome would be xenophobia, shutting the doors of the U.S. to international collaboration, thereby undermining America's own strength.
This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Leena Sanzgiri, fact-checked by Nadia Lewis. Our editor is Paddy Hirsch, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this podcast, we incorrectly refer to the nonprofit NAFSA: Association of International Educators as the National Association of International Educators.]
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