FSE dean Joost Frenken. Photo by Reyer Boxem

China and Russia want our knowledge

‘We were naive’

FSE dean Joost Frenken. Photo by Reyer Boxem
Sometimes, candidates for PhD or post-doctoral positions at the UG are screened with help from the AIVD. The goal: to prevent sensitive knowledge from ending up in the wrong hands. It’s not a light measure, says Joost Frenken, dean at the Faculty of Science and Engineering. ‘We thought knowledge was a neutral good, but we were naive.’
8 February om 11:45 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 28 February 2024
om 12:18 uur.
February 8 at 11:45 AM.
Last modified on February 28, 2024
at 12:18 PM.
Avatar photo

Door Christien Boomsma

8 February om 11:45 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 28 February 2024
om 12:18 uur.
Avatar photo

By Christien Boomsma

February 8 at 11:45 AM.
Last modified on February 28, 2024
at 12:18 PM.

It’s happened before, says Joost Frenken. It may not have been under his management, since he’s been dean at the Faculty of Science Engineering for less than a year, but it did happen. A PhD student who’d graduated from FSE returned to China only to build upon the knowledge he’d gained in Groningen. 

Now, this wouldn’t have been a problem if this researcher had been trying to create a drug for cancer, or a solution to the current climate issues. But in this particular case, his research was used in technology for the military. That wasn’t really supposed to happen.

‘But it’s not like we could’ve predicted that’, says Frenken. ‘It’s not that simple.’ However, this example shows that it isn’t just a hypothetical situation. Ground-breaking research from universities can inadvertently make its way to be used for military applications. It’s what’s known as dual use. And let’s not forget about the ever-hardening trade wars and corresponding technological arms race.


Just last week, the Netherlands and the USA reached an agreement that further limits the sale of microchip machines made by tech company ASML to China. ‘Those machines are full of inventions that are based on knowledge from the academic world’, says Frenken who, before he worked at the UG, was director at research institute ARCNL, which has close ties to the microchip manufacturer. ‘In the end, that leads to the production of microchips that America says can play a role in military technology.’

Microchip machines are full of inventions based on knowledge from the academic world

Frenken does think the fear of military application is mostly an excuse. America is more focused on economic competition; they want to stay ahead of China. However, it’s true that the situation has changed on a global scale. ‘Knowledge security’ is the latest thing.

Universities in particular are affected. A year ago, the UG created an advisory team on knowledge security for faculties to turn to if they’re worried about partnerships with foreign institutes or companies or about hiring PhD and postdoctoral candidates. In most cases, it pertains to partnerships with China, North Korea, Russia, or Iran. 

If the Groningen advisory team can’t figure it out, the request is passed on to the national Contact Point for Knowledge Security, with the General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) looking in if necessary. As Frenken says, it’s a complicated discussion. 

Mutual dependence

‘For years, the academic community was encouraged to be as internationally oriented as possible’, he says. ‘As was the business world. But that’s resulted in an international network of mutual dependence.’

See, again, the microchip industry. Each element of the production process takes place in a different country. At one point, this was thought to be efficient. But the international community has since realised that this strategy becomes a risk in case of a military conflict. If China were to invade Taiwan, the entire chain would be broken, and that would be a big problem for everyone.

So now, each continent is trying to get the knowledge back in-house while also trying to head off the competition. ‘As knowledge institutes, we’re a part of that’, says Frenken. ‘I grew up with the philosophy that science is neutral. It’s knowledge, and you can use it either for good or for evil. So as long as you don’t worry about how it’s applied, you’re fine.’

Atom bomb

But these days, that thought is pretty ‘naive’, he says. Think of Alfred Nobel, who had to watch how his invention, dynamite, was used not just for mining, but also in military explosives. This of Oppenheimer and the atom bomb. 

The people who invented the internet had no idea it would lead to knowledge bubbles

Or more recently, how the facial recognition software that unlocks your phone and which has its origin in artificial intelligence research, is being used in China to oppress Uyghur people. Digital technology that Netflix uses to predict shows you might like can also be used to influence election results. 

‘The people who invented the internet thought that being able to share information would lead to the end of disinformation. They had no idea it would also lead to knowledge bubbles, or that people would be drowning in those.’


That’s not an accusation, says Frenken. It’s almost impossible to predict how fundamental knowledge is going to be applied. But there are areas where a little common sense will clue you in on the risks involved. Right now, the UG faculties are working hard to identify the disciplines that are at risk of being abused. 

There are some elements at ENTEG, the institute that wants to combine fundamental research with applicable technology, that are at risk, as well as elements of artificial intelligence and nuclear physics. ‘We’ve decided to come up with some rules for those fields.’

What exactly are those rules? 

They’re difficult to pinpoint exactly, Frenken has felt. But take the ‘Seven Sons’, for example: a group of seven Chinese universities that are known to have close ties to military research, while also doing prestigious fundamental research. ‘That presents us with a moral dilemma. Should we exclude people from those universities?’


He hasn’t quite figured it out yet, he says, but he regularly looks at the list. Just to have a reminder. ‘It helps to get rid of that naiveté. That great researcher from that Chinese university who writes such great articles might be just down the hall from someone who doesn’t write any articles because they’re working with the military. Will your colleague stay silent on your joint research? Are they even able to?’

We’d never lock knowledge away. You can’t do that

The advisory team has received a handful of requests for advice, says Frenken. ‘It will become a lot more common in the near future.’ Every year, FSE hires 250 PhD candidates alone. Then there are the post-doctoral candidates and people in more permanent positions. ‘I can imagine a dozen to a hundred requests coming in every year.’

What a faculty does with the information they get is up to themselves. Frenken, the departments concerned, and HR people make their own decision together. But that’s something he’d like to see change. ‘I’d love it if the information came with a recommendation, so it wouldn’t be up to each faculty to make its own decision. That way lies randomness.’

Open access

But the question still remains whether it’s even possible to stop knowledge from leaking to other countries. Wouldn’t that be fundamentally at odds with how the academic world works? 

Frenken nods. Groningen is a frontrunner in the area of open access and open data, he confirms. And they should be. Knowledge that’s been funded by public money should be accessible to the public. ‘We’d never lock knowledge away. You can’t do that.’

What you can do is create a head start. ‘That can make all the difference and win you the race. On the battlefield, it doesn’t matter whether or not you know your opponent’s weapon, or if you have some technique to fight back.’ 

Nevertheless, the discussion bothers Frenken. International scientific cooperation is crucial to universities. It engenders prosperity and progress. While concerns for knowledge security are founded, he’s also afraid they will lead to the mistrust of individuals or nationalities. ‘That would be massively in conflict with our core value of being an inclusive international community.’

Knowledge security at universities

The Dutch government is increasingly concerned about knowledge security: the fear that knowledge from Dutch universities will leak to competing institutes and countries. It could pose a danger to national security. It mainly concerns partnerships with countries such as China, North Korea, Iran, and Russia.

An investigation by the AIVD and the Dutch Military Intelligence and Security Service proved the concern is justified: various educational institutes, research institutes, and think tanks have been (digitally) targeted in an effort to gain access to important technology, wrote minister of the Interior Bruins Slot to the Lower House in December. ‘China poses the biggest threat to Dutch knowledge security.’


In 2019, the government created a contact point for knowledge embargoes. Anyone doing research in a field that falls under the European penalties system for North Korea and Iran, has to apply for an exemption to the knowledge embargo with the government – no matter their nationality. The contact point will then investigate if that person has ties to any of the ballistic rocket programmes in North Korea or Iran. At the UG, two departments at FSE research institute ENTEG require a background check. 

In January 2022, the national Contact Point for Knowledge Security was created. Universities can request advice on international partnerships. At the same time, the National Knowledge Security Guidelines were published. They’d been written in collaboration with the Dutch universities. Universities also have a local contact point that faculties can go to for advice. 

Right now, UG faculties are making an overview of which areas at the university might pose a risk. They’re asking the academic community for input on this. The letter from the board of directors asks people to think of ‘research or data that could be used for unethical purposes, risks of covert influence, or a financial dependency that could influence (or give the appearance of influencing) academic freedom’.