Industry-Sponsored Research Week

Researchers object to campus Huawei bans

By David Schwartz
Published: June 4th, 2019

Researchers caught in the crossfire of federal policy moves and legal action against the Chinese telecom giant Huawei are voicing their objections to the bans on collaborations with the company, despite widespread concern over its ties to the Chinese government and potential IP theft as well as state-sponsored espionage.

Professors who are losing research funding and seeing the international dispute being reflected on innocent Chinese postdocs are growing increasingly restless with blanket Huawei bans, especially on projects they say poses zero threat to U.S. national security. Some professors see these bans as infringing on academic freedom that are being passed too quickly to satisfy political demands without input from affected faculty.

At Stanford University, for example, Huawei-backed professors are pushing for a formal funding policy that considers each grant or gift individually. This would allow flourishing existing or promising new partnerships that have no security issues to proceed, they say. Stanford ceased accepting research funding from Huawei as of early 2019.

John Ousterhout, a professor of computer science at Stanford, is one of those seeking a more measured approach. The $500,000 annually in unrestricted grants he’s received from Huawei – for which he’d been negotiating a major increase – has been a casualty of the ban. About 40% of Ousterhout’s salary comes from Huawei funds. He claims to have learned of the moratorium via e-mail only after it had already been put in place.

“It was a pretty unpleasant way I found out,” Ousterhout said. “There was no faculty input in the decision. This whole process is not one that is appropriate for a university, where we do things in the open and make reason-based decisions following arguments and counterarguments.”

Ousterhout’s lab does research on computer and software systems that enable “big control” of collaborative devices and works with a visiting scholar from Huawei — a provision he negotiated with Stanford prior to the funding ban. “The work we do poses no risk to national security. The thing about our research is that it’s all completely open source. We don’t do classified research or proprietary research,” he maintains.

Similarly, Stanford psychology professor Brian Wandell said he learned of the Huawei moratorium only after some of his funding was held up. The loss of several hundred thousand dollars means he has to make do with two fewer graduate student hires. Like Ousterhout, Wandell said his research poses no threat to national security, as it’s all open-source work on photographic software that helps design cameras and its results will be freely available to anyone, anywhere in the world.

Wandell said he’s worried about the message the Huawei ban was sending to international students — especially “brilliant young kids” from China. He also pointed out that Stanford is not currently banning research funds from other controversial sources, such as those from Saudi Arabia.

Ed Lazowska, Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering at Washington University, who is currently working with Huawei funding, said he’d seen no official announcement about his institution’s moratorium on future grants. He said he worries about a loss of future research money and a “loss of collaboration with our partners” in Huawei’s Seattle engineering office. “This has been an outstanding partnership,” he said.

But he does not dispute the evidence of Huawei’s involvement in some dirty dealing. Individuals I trust who have very high levels of security clearance have examined the intelligence and become convinced that the U.S. government is justified in believing that Huawei represents a threat,” he said. “Not the Huawei folks we interact with, who are terrific, but the company as a whole.”

Source: Inside Higher Ed

Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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