MIT China Strategy Group releases university engagement with China report

Report forecasts uncertain “outlook” for research collaborations between U.S. and Chinese scholars

Associate Provost Richard Lester and Chair of the Faculty Lily Tsai released a report titled University Engagement With China: An MIT Approach in an email to the MIT community Oct. 7. 

The report was authored by the  MIT China Strategy Group, a group of MIT experts on U.S.-China relations, formed last year at President L. Rafael Reif’s request. 

According to Lester and Tsai — the co-chairs of the group — the purpose of the report is to “chart a path for MIT to conduct academic interactions and collaborations with individuals and organizations in China in ways that uphold the core values of the Institute.” The report contains an evaluation of the benefits and risks of the U.S.-China academic relationship and specific guidance to people involved in or considering China-related activities.

The report finds that “the intensifying geopolitical and strategic rivalry between China and the United States, and concerns over attempts by Chinese interests to gain advantage over the United States by exploiting American university research” has caused the “outlook for academic research collaborations and flows of students and scholars between the U.S. and China” to be uncertain. This is particularly relevant to MIT, as “the U.S.-China rivalry focuses on competition in science and technology”, causing pressures in both countries to “erect higher barriers to academic research collaboration and educational exchange, especially in scientific fields.”

This statement comes despite MIT’s long history of collaboration with China, which “stretch[es] back almost to [MIT’s] founding,” and the “tremendously valuable contributions [that] students, scholars, and faculty of Chinese origin” have made to the MIT community.

The report recommends an approach which “combines selective engagement with targeted risk assessment and management.” Recommendations for this approach include not engaging in “research collaborations that might help foreign governments use advanced technologies against the United States” or “collaborations that might contribute to human rights abuses”; creating resources to help principal investigators (PIs) understand the context of proposed research collaborations with China; providing training to help PIs educate researchers about the standards for sharing information outside the research group; and strengthening internal reporting systems for reports of conflicts of interest.

However, MIT will continue admitting students from China to ensure “the greatest possible access for individuals of great ability, regardless of nationality” and to provide opportunities for MIT students to learn about China’s “society, history, culture… to develop practical, hands-on knowledge of Chinese business practices and innovation capabilities.”

Further guidance is provided, including details regarding informal collaborations, foreign talent recruitment programs, gifts from Chinese donors, technology licensing, and travel to China.

The MIT China Strategy Group has encouraged the MIT community to submit comments on the report, which will be forwarded to Reif for review.