The Faculty of Science and Engineering wants to set up a China platform. The platform would facilitate researchers and policymakers to talk about the opportunities and risks of working with China. The platform would also be able to exchange knowledge about working with China with the AIVD intelligence agency and government organisations.
The faculty is greatly in favour of collaborating with Chinese researcher. Not just because the quality of scientific research in China is very high, but because the country is also a source of scientific talent.
However, partnerships with the country have increasingly come under scrutiny from politicians. The memo ‘China Policy Faculty of Science and Engineering’ that was discussed during a faculty council meeting last week is aimed at explaining how the partnership will be developing over the next few years.
‘Something that the discussion in the Netherlands seems to gloss over is the fact that China is a large country with many people and that there is a diversity of opinions just like over here’, says project manager Mark Kas, who wrote the memo. ‘It might look like one big communist, monolithic block, but it simply isn’t. Certainly not when it comes to academia.’
FSE currently has eleven partnerships with various Chinese universities. In most cases, it involves joint research. The Feringa Lab, for example, studies molecular motors together with their partners at the East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai, and the South China Normal University in Guangzhou.
The university also partners with Chinese institutes on PhD training, double degree programmes, and staff exchanges.
Nevertheless, the faculty is aware of the risks of these kinds of partnerships. ‘We want to show that there are plenty of opportunities’, says Kas, ‘but it’s also important that we stay vigilant. We can’t be naive.’
During negotiations about a potential branch campus in the Chinese city of Yantai, people became increasingly worried about academic freedom in the eastern country. But since that project was called off, there has also been some concern about espionage, the country using research results for the military, cyber attacks, and more.
People are also worried about independence: the Chinese government pays a lot of money funding research. Already, Chinese PhDs earn the faculty several million euros a year.
That is why FSE wants to approach the collaboration strategically. The faculty will have a limited number of partners in China, and they will foster long-term relationships in the fields of both research and education. ‘I’ve already noticed that people at the faculty take a second to think about the opportunities presenting themselves’, says Kas. ‘Is this a group I can see myself working with for the next five or ten years, and if so, what will that partnership look like?’
Financial dependency can be prevented by dividing incoming Asian PhDs across various countries. The new platform will have to tackle diverse dilemmas. The platform, which will have FSE staff work with Chinese partners (both researchers and policymakers) , will have to ensure that people are aware of the dilemmas and exchange knowledge.
The platform will also be able to organise information meetings and discussions with the AIVD intelligence agency and other government organisations. ‘We would be exchanging information’, says Kas. ‘It would be good to know what the organisations on security and other issues observe. I’ve noticed that the discussion is about feelings and opinions a lot, rather than facts. Perhaps they can tell us more about it in smaller meetings or tell us things we’d miss otherwise.’