May/June 2023Vol.XXXV No. 4

University Engagement with China: An MIT Approach

The MIT China Strategy Group

Executive Summary

The subject of this report is MIT’s future relationship with China. The question it addresses is how the Institute and other American research universities should engage with organizations and individuals in countries whose political leaders are pursuing policies that are irreconcilable with basic human rights and values and that pose security risks to the United States. While China is the focus of this report, some of the findings apply to MIT’s relations with other countries, too. The outlook for the China relationship is increasingly uncertain because of the harsher political climate in China, 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.

MIT has flourished because it has been a magnet for the world’s most talented students, scholars, and innovators, many of them from China. MIT faculty collaborate productively in research and education with colleagues in countries around the world, including China. Now, like the rest of American society, MIT and other research universities must prepare for a period of contentious and potentially confrontational relations between the United States and China. Because the U.S.-China rivalry focuses on competition in science and technology and its convergence with national security, economic security, and human rights concerns, pressures are building in both countries to erect higher barriers to academic research collaborations and educational exchange, especially in scientific fields.

The challenge for MIT and other U.S. universities is how to manage these pressures while preserving open scientific research, open intellectual exchange, and the free flow of ideas and people — all of them essential for American universities to remain at the global forefront of research, education, and innovation.

This report charts a path for MIT’s future relations with China. It recommends an approach that combines selective engagement with targeted risk assessment and management. This approach is designed to help MIT advance knowledge and the needs of the nation and the world — without damaging U.S. interests in national security or the economy, without endangering human rights, and in ways that are consistent with the core values of the Institute.

Some observers will find it difficult to understand why there should be any engagement at all between American research universities and China in the current environment. The authors of this report take seriously the concern that the Chinese government — and other foreign governments — are targeting U.S. research and technology to gain advantage. We recognize too that when researchers at U.S. universities collaborate with individuals or institutions in countries with authoritarian or autocratic governments, the good intentions of their collaborators do not assure good outcomes. Yet even if the geopolitical rivalry between the U.S. and China intensifies further, MIT, other research universities, and the nation can benefit from continued academic relations with China. U.S. universities should be prepared for scenarios that would force the termination of these relations, but ending them today would weaken the foundations of American science, technology, and innovation.

Open scientific research — defined as research for publication — is the foundation of knowledge, education, and innovation in U.S. research universities. It is vital to turn back the erosion of support for open scientific research among U.S. officials and the taxpayers who support much of our work before it is too late. At the same time, in the current environment, academic cooperation for its own sake is no longer sufficient, and in every case the likely benefits must be clearly identified and the risks managed effectively. For most U.S. universities this will entail developing new risk management capabilities. For all of them it will require a productive relationship with the federal government.

Most of our recommendations are directed toward MIT itself — the MIT administration and other members of the MIT community, especially the faculty, whose work shapes MIT’s engagement with the world. There is also a need for changes in federal policy, though that is not the primary focus of this report. The absence of clear, coherent, consistent federal policy guidance regarding research and education interactions with China is disrupting academic decision-making and has harmed the U.S. scientific enterprise. An integrated government policy framework addressing immigration, research security, and research collaboration is urgently needed. The policy should be proportionate to the level of risk, and the solutions should not cause greater difficulties than the problems they are intended to solve.

But federal policy, no matter how well-crafted, cannot be a substitute for effective actions taken at the university level. MIT and other universities must draw on their more detailed knowledge of educational and research practices and principles to develop effective risk management processes of their own. These actions will complement U.S. policy and will help avoid the imposition of external restrictions that would further damage U.S. education, research, and innovation.

Recommendations to MIT

  • The report affirms several principles and lines that should not be crossed in any of MIT’s international engagements. These include not engaging in collaborative activities that could compromise the integrity or objectivity of our academic work; not engaging in research collaborations that might help foreign governments use advanced technologies against the United States; not accommodating attempts by prospective partners to exclude MIT people from participation in activities based on nationality, race, gender, or ethnicity; and not engaging in collaborations that might contribute to human rights abuses by foreign governments against their own citizens. The Institute’s existing elevated-risk review process helps to ensure that these lines are not crossed in China-related engagements.[1] It also provides guidance on activities that would not violate those principles, but nonetheless require careful balancing of risks and benefits. An important aspect of this review process is to consider the risks of not undertaking proposed engagements, as well as the risks of doing so. There are important areas of research and education in which MIT, the academic community, the nation, and the world would be better off with more, rather than less, scientific collaboration with China.

  • Recommendations to strengthen MIT’s risk management capabilities include:
    • Developing informational resources to help principal investigators (PIs) better understand the context in which proposed research collaborators in China are operating, including the ways in which organizations and individuals in China are connected to, and might have obligations to, the Chinese government or the Chinese Communist Party;
    • Providing training and other guidance at the individual school level to help PIs educate members of their research groups about the norms and expectations for sharing information, samples, or equipment outside the groups;
    • Strengthening and systematizing internal reporting systems for disclosures of conflict of interest, conflict of commitment, and current and pending support, and also for reviewing informal collaborations with colleagues in China and other countries posing significant security risks.

  • Circumstances that should disqualify a company from having a relationship with MIT include:
    • Any direct involvement in government intelligence activities or a direct relationship with the Chinese armed forces as a provider of systems, products, or services with military applications;
    • Credible evidence that the company’s activities are contributing to the suppression of human rights in Xinjiang or elsewhere in China.

  • MIT should not engage in research collaborations with China’s national defense universities, military research institutes, or national defense key laboratories at civilian universities.

  • MIT executive and professional education programs should not enable or empower organizations that are contributing to the suppression of human rights or that have direct connections to Chinese military or intelligence activities.

  • MIT’s research is led by PIs, and their role in risk assessment and management is central. Recommendations to MIT PIs include the following:
    • Before embarking on collaborations involving China, PIs should develop assessments of the expected benefits of collaborating with the Chinese entity specifically, including broader benefits to MIT, the research community, and the The expectation of unique benefits is not a necessary condition for collaborations to take place, but it is relevant to the overall assessment of risks and benefits.
    • PIs are responsible for ensuring that all members of their research groups understand the norms and expectations regarding the sharing of information outside the group and for continually reinforcing those norms.
    • In departments and fields where students are not members of research groups or laboratories and/or where graduate students commonly engage in research and scholarship that is independent from their advisors, these advisors should provide guidance to graduate students regarding international collaborations and student responsibilities for informing the department of such collaborations.
    • Faculty may receive compensation at any level for their outside work, but they should take into account that high-pay compensation for consulting with foreign entities may be considered by the wider community as endorsement of that entity’s activities well beyond the specific service the faculty member provides. Faculty are advised to exercise extra caution before accepting compensation for outside activities from the Chinese government or from government-funded programs, and to disclose such activities fully in required disclosures of conflicts of interest and commitment and current and pending support. If faculty are considering entering into contractual relationships with Chinese entities as part of their outside work, they are encouraged to seek advice from MIT’s Office of General Counsel before doing so.
    • Faculty should not participate in “talent recruitment” programs that are designed to transfer technology to China.
    • Faculty should not hesitate to recommend their MIT students or postdocs or other students they know for positions in China, but they should avoid writing letters of recommendation for non-MIT students in programs in which they have been paid to teach with a quid pro quo that they write such letters. They should also avoid playing organizational or administrative roles, either with or without compensation, in programs that seek to channel graduates into jobs in China.

  • MIT should not appoint as postdocs or visiting researchers individuals who are known by MIT to be currently employed by Chinese military and security institutions.
    • Responsibility for determining who is admitted or accepted from overseas by U.S. universities is shared with the federal government, through the exercise of the latter’s visa-granting authorities. Further clarification and stabilization of federal visa and immigration policies governing admittance of students from China is urgently needed. We urge that federal policies restricting student visa eligibility be clearly specified and limited in scope. Our primary concern today is that the continuing uncertainty about federal visa and immigration policies is deterring outstanding Chinese students and scholars from applying to MIT and other universities and from staying in the U.S. once here. This situation has negative implications not only for MIT but more broadly for the strength of the U.S. science, technology, and innovation enterprise.

  • MIT should expand the opportunities available to our students to become knowledgeable about China’s history, society, culture, language, politics, economic development, and science, and to develop practical, hands-on knowledge of Chinese business practices and innovation capabilities. Other resources should be developed to help MIT faculty experts and their students gain a deeper understanding of Chinese scientific and technological capabilities and advances.

  • Finally, we propose that a committee of MIT faculty and staff should be tasked with planning for the implementation of these recommendations.


    [1] MIT’s elevated-risk review process, introduced in 2019, focuses on proposed academic engagements with certain countries, including China, that merit additional faculty and administrative review beyond the usual evaluations that all international projects receive.

    The MIT China Strategy Group includes the following members:

    Richard Lester (co-chair), Associate Provost for International Activities; Japan Steel Industry Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering.

    Lily Tsai (co-chair), Chair of the Faculty; Ford Professor of Political Science; Director, MIT Gov/Lab.

    Suzanne Berger, John M. Deutch Institute Professor and Professor of Political Science.

    Peter Fisher, Thomas A. Frank (1977) Professor of Physics; Director, MIT Office of Research Computing and Data.

    Taylor Fravel, Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science; Director, Security Studies Program.

    David Goldston, Director, MIT Washington Office.

    Yasheng Huang, Epoch Foundation Professor of International Management; Director of Action Learning at MIT Sloan School of Management.

    Daniela Rus, Andrew (1956) and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; Director, Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

    Elizabeth Dupuy, Senior Advisor, Office of the Associate Provost for International Activities; Staff to the MIT China Strategy Group.

    Please contact with any questions or comments.

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