As rising tensions in U.S.-China relations lead to more scrutiny over academic exchanges with universities abroad, Yale’s lobbyists traveled to Washington, D.C. to advocate for legislation that protects cross-national research from foreign security threats.
Despite revelations about past information leakages that resulted from academic collaborations, the University has maintained close ties with international research institutions. In February, the New York Times revealed that School of Medicine emeritus professor Kenneth Kidd shared genetic data with scientists from China’s Ministry of Public Security, which then used the information to oppress the country’s Muslim ethnic minority. Weeks after the Times report, University President Peter Salovey traveled to China to “nurture and strengthen relationships” with Yale’s partner universities.
The most recent lobbying disclosure form filed with the Federal Election Commission states that Yale spent a total of $360,000 on lobbying from January to June this year. Legislation on the lobbyists’ itinerary included “potential legislation to address security issues posed by foreign governments and their agents for university research and collaboration.”
“Yale is following several bills that seek to address security concerns about university research,” Associate Vice President for Federal and State Relations Richard Jacob said.
University President Peter Salovey referred the News to Vice President for Communications Nate Nickerson, who said in an email to the News after this story’s publication on Tuesday that Salovey has been extremely vocal in his support for international students and scholars “precisely because tensions are so high.”
“President Salovey believes it would be more effective for the national security agencies and universities to open a continuing dialogue about perceived threats and ways they can be managed. Accordingly, Yale has endorsed HR 3038, the Securing American Science and Technology Act, because it would convene such a dialogue,” Nickerson said.
Kidd did not respond to request for comment Monday afternoon.
Between April and June, the University lobbied for the Securing American Science and Technology Act of 2019. If approved, the bill would establish a coalition of federal departments and research institutions to safeguard scientific research from foreign exploitation and develop security guidelines for federal grantees. Introduced by Rep. Mikie Sherrill D-NJ in May, the bill was referred to the Committee on Science, Space and Technology and the Committee on Armed Services and has yet to pass the House of Representatives. The amount Yale spent to lobby for this bill is not disclosed to the public.
In May, Yale, along with several other research institutions, penned a letter thanking Sherrill for introducing the Securing American Science and Technology Act, or SASTA. All Ivy League universities except Columbia University and Dartmouth College signed onto this letter.
“Codifying this improved coordination between the federal science and security agencies into law would address significant challenges in the development of common definitions and effective reporting requirements,” the letter stated. “… Second, the bill would ensure that federal science and security agencies also have a mechanism to engage directly with the academic community as well as industry partners.”
According to Jacob, Yale lobbied for SASTA because it would compel federal agencies and research universities to clarify the scope of security risks while preserving the benefits of open international collaboration.
On the other hand, the University did not support Sen. Josh Hawley R-MO’s Protect Our Universities Act of 2019 because it would “restrict beneficial work between Yale faculty and international colleagues,” Jacob said. The bill stipulates that a task force operating under the Department of Education would track foreign student participation in sensitive research projects. Students with past or current citizenship in China, North Korea, Russia or Iran would need a waiver from the Director of National Intelligence to collaborate on these projects.
In recent months, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents have interrogated students and faculty members with ties to Chinese research institutions, according to NPR. Earlier this year, intelligence officers approached Brian Kim LAW ’21 — who previously studied at Yenching Academy in Peking University — and questioned whether he had been co-opted by Chinese espionage efforts. The University has facilitated student exchanges with Peking University in the past, hosting Peking University Summer Program at Yale and sending its own students to study in Beijing over the summer.
Salovey is one of the few Ivy League university presidents who have spoken publicly about the importance of international research collaboration. In a University-wide letter earlier this summer, Salovey wrote that welcoming talented colleagues from around the world does not detract from Yale’s dedication to the integrity of research.
“Yale takes seriously all of the legal and regulatory requirements that safeguard our research enterprise and protect our scholars from the theft of intellectual property,” Salovey stated. “We pair our unequivocal commitment to careful research stewardship with another: international students and scholars are welcome and respected on our campus.”
The National Institute of Health Advisory Committee to the Director published a report on its “Working Group for Foreign Influences on Research Integrity” in December 2018.
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Update, Sept. 10: This story was updated to reflect a comment from Vice President for Communications Nate Nickerson.