30 July 2021

The Government has begun to tackle the Chinese military’s exploitation of UK research – but there’s much more to do

By Radomir Tylecote & Roberto White

In February, our Civitas paper Inadvertently Arming China? revealed the widespread sponsorship of scientific research centres in UK universities by conglomerates and elite universities linked to the Chinese military. Some of the Chinese firms that sponsor our universities produce weapons of mass destruction including intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads; others produce strike fighter engines, military drones and stealth aircraft.

Research at some of these centres is sponsored by the British taxpayer. We do not believe that UK-based researchers and universities intend for their work to be put to military use – but the way UK research is used in China will not always be under their control. Indeed, the Government’s Integrated Review of March 2021 noted that autocratic countries might use economic tools to “target and undermine the economic and security interests of rivals”.

Since February, the Government has begun a number of welcome reforms – many planned before our revelations, some which have become more urgent. 

This autumn, the new Research Collaboration Advice Team (RCAT) will open in Manchester to offer academics confidential advice “before entering overseas research partnerships” to guard against the risks from “hostile actors”. RCAT will analyse areas which “could have both civilian and military applications, including aerospace and robotics”, which are seen as “particularly sensitive”. The office of 10-15 advisers under the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) will also “proactively approach universities” to help them avoid threats.

The Government’s guidelines for academics have now changed, reminding researchers:

“You should note certain countries have an active state policy concerning the diversion of advanced and emerging technologies. This is to support the development of their military including in WMD”.

The Government has also tightened the Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS) which regulates entry for international students researching sensitive subjects. This now covers a wider range of subjects including biological sciences and fields of mathematics, computing, and engineering.  

Meanwhile, through the National Security and Investment Act, the Government is launching the Investment Security Unit (ISU), a UK equivalent of America’s Committee on Foreign Investment (CFIUS). Investors will need to notify ISU about certain transactions in sensitive sectors (defence, energy and transport) to avoid national security risks. 

This is all to the good. But as our new paper ‘Towards Strategic Coherence’ explains, more needs to be done if the UK is to reverse its “strategic incoherence” and prevent our research excellence accidentally helping China’s military expansion. This means barring Beijing’s military nexus from investing in the UK economy.

First, ATAS is still broadly limited to preventing the entry of people with demonstrable links to the militaries or WMD programmes of countries like China. But one of the problems we highlighted was that it is often impossible to know how new technology and skills will be used in Chinese military-linked conglomerates and universities: students and staff who appear to be from their civilian branches may be asked to help generate materiel for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). We recommend that the Government draws up a list of Chinese military-linked universities and conglomerates whose students and staff are barred from entry to the UK (the Government should apply the same measures to similar institutions in Russia and Iran, for instance).

The arrival of the Investment Security Unit (ISU) is heartening, but it is a concern that it will not yet have the teeth of its American counterpart. CFIUS is an inter-agency body overseen by the Secretaries of all major Cabinet departments including the Treasury, State and Defense. ISU will be under BEIS, whose institutional priority is inward investment.

So far, the UK has also avoided the most important element of a response: sanctions against Chinese military-linked entities. In the United States, a suite of sanctions prevents these companies investing in universities, or for that matter elsewhere in the economy. Not so in the UK. Instead, we are asking universities and researchers to understand what a safe research relationship looks like, while our national security policies remain incoherent, so we risk continuing to help the technological advancement of the PLA. 

The Government is right to prioritise research into “novel weapons” such as hypersonic missiles, for instance: defence chiefs are concerned about Chinese and Russian development of these new arms, which it notes allow “conventional or nuclear warheads” to be delivered “with very little warning”. Winning the new hypersonics race has been called “the first priority” in defence. Yet our analysis demonstrated that some of our universities may have spent years unknowingly helping China develop hypersonics – one even admitted that a hypersonic technology collaboration with China has possible “defence” use. As the Government stated in its Defence Command Paper, “our historic technological advantage is being increasingly challenged by targeted investments in capabilities designed to counter our strengths”.      

Government also needs to plan ahead to find ways to compensate UK universities for the necessary loss of various Chinese income sources. In the US, the Department of Defense funds around 40% of all university engineering research, primarily through the Defense University Research Instrumentation Program (DURIP). The UK invests less in R&D than Volkswagen alone, yet our ability to generate defence innovation – and prevent it from being used by adversaries – is crucial, if we are not to end up in a supplicatory position this century.

The UK also needs to expand university collaboration with the other Five Eyes countries (Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand) such as through the Five Eyes’ Technical Cooperation programme, whose 11 fields include electronic warfare. This collaboration is made easier by member countries having worked to standardise technical specifications.

In the long run, British universities may find these to be more salubrious scientific collaborations.

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Radomir Tylecote is Director of the Defence and Security for Democracy (DSD) Unit at Civitas. Roberto White is a Research Intern at Civitas.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.