Illustration: Craig Stephens
by Tim Danks
by Tim Danks

The US is hurting its universities and itself, when it shuts the door on research partnerships and innovation

  • American academia is suspending research ties with Huawei under government pressure. This is a mistake, as collaboration between academia and industry is a mutually beneficial process that spreads the fruits of innovation more widely
Foreign firms have noticed Chinese companies’ rapid transition from imitators to innovators, a shift highlighted in the South China Morning Post’s China internet Report 2019.
But some governments, especially that of the United States, have responded with bans and other barriers which they justify on the grounds of national security.
In addition to targeting private companies, some in Washington are moving to curtail international academic research.

Last month, Republican Senator Josh Hawley introduced a bill that would screen students from China, Russia and Iran to make sure they do not steal sensitive research while working at US universities.

Over the past 40 years, the US federal government has allocated a steadily declining volume of US gross domestic product for research and development, and US universities get less than half their research funding from Washington

Meanwhile, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is reportedly visiting US universities and urging them to screen Chinese students to prevent theft of sensitive information.

This is a new tack in an ongoing campaign against cross-border academic research and, more specifically, Huawei, a global technology company headquartered in China.

In April, Massachusetts Institute of Technology became the latest university to bow to US government pressure and suspend research ties with Huawei.

Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT’s well-known Media Lab, lamented the loss of “the most advanced partner we had in the telecommunications field”.

When the University of California at Berkeley said in March it would suspend collaboration with Huawei, the school’s vice chancellor for research described the move as a “disservice to the technology companies in the United States and Europe, and to the researchers at universities that are in the forefront of new scientific and technical developments in this field”.

By suspending research ties with Huawei, these universities are hoping to avoid bad publicity.

But they are also cutting off opportunities to engage in productive research, while reinforcing the mistaken belief that research collaboration between academia and industry is nothing but a chance for companies to pilfer intellectual property or IP.

In fact, such collaboration is a mutually beneficial process that helps society and spreads the fruits of innovation more widely.

Universities have always exchanged knowledge, sometimes across borders.

Their collaborative research with the private sector dates back at least to the early part of the 20th century, producing breakthrough innovations in areas from petroleum engineering to aeronautics.

The Bayh-Dole Act, passed in 1980 to stimulate a weak US economy, gave universities greater control over their IP, leading many schools to set up technology transfer offices aimed at maximising the commercial value of their industry partnerships.

Politicians who say Huawei cooperates with US universities to “steal American research” are either disingenuous or misinformed.

Universities are not naive; they know how to get the best deal from research partners.

The idea that such partnerships might allow companies to steal IP or government secrets from unsuspecting university scientists betrays a fundamental ignorance of how such partnerships are structured and managed.

US universities have well-developed mechanisms for co-developing IP. Legal contracts spell out ownership terms and ensure all participants benefit equally when IP is commercialised.

As any university research and development office will tell you, patents that are not commercialised have little value. Commercialisation disseminates innovative technology so that more people can benefit from it.

Huawei and the double standards of the West

Far from being a form of IP theft, commercialisation is one of the main reasons universities collaborate with private companies in the first place.

As a global tech company, Huawei has an interest in finding new commercial applications of technology. To this end, we invest more than US$300 million a year in basic research in engineering, computer science and other technical fields.

Currently, we work with more than 300 universities and 900 research institutes around the world on more than 7,800 research projects.

We have signed more than 1,000 research and development cooperation contracts and paid US$1.8 billion to third parties in connection with these contracts.

Huawei was the world’s fifth biggest spender on R&D last year, investing US$15 billion.
We pay special attention to basic research aimed at making new discoveries in areas such as mathematics, algorithms and material science. We hold more than 80,000 patents, including more than 40,000 in countries other than China.
Politicians who say Huawei cooperates with US universities to “steal American research” are either disingenuous or misinformed.

We do our own research, create our own IP, and work with schools and institutes around the world to push back the frontiers of scientific knowledge.

Instead of building walls to control the exchange of information, society should be moving towards greater openness.

US universities need clear rules against commercial espionage

In an article for Harvard Business Review, the dean of Boston University’s College of Engineering said universities should form more long-term partnerships with private companies.

Both academia and industry need to collaborate in a way that “allows them to stay continuously connected to early-stage research and to accelerate the translation of that research into new products that drive economic growth”.

A US government report in 1945 said scientific progress would lead to stronger security, better public health, more jobs and higher living standards, and this still holds true today.

Yet over the past 40 years, the US federal government has allocated a steadily declining volume of US gross domestic product for research and development, and US universities get less than half their research funding from Washington.

Some may therefore wonder why the US government is pressuring its best universities to shut the door on promising research partnerships.

Despite the resistance it has encountered recently, Huawei will increase its investment in university partnerships that support basic scientific research.

This is by far the best way to prepare for the future and ensure technology’s benefits reach the greatest number of people.

Tim Danks is vice-president for risk management and partner relations at Huawei