Academic Treason

Kirsten Hacker:

International collaboration has become a contentious issue in the world of academia. From a recent Bloomberg article by Tyler Cowen, I learned that ivy league universities have been accepting huge sums of money from countries like Iran, China and others. The chair of the Harvard chemistry department accepted 50,000 dollars per year and as much as 150,000 dollars in perks from Chinese collaborators and a hundred researchers at Texas A&M, many of whom worked in areas relevant to national defense, had gotten money from China and only five of them disclosed this.

I know people who work for a German lab and they are encouraged to collaborate with Chinese institutes, but I’ve heard that this sort of collaboration is sometimes controversial from the US standpoint, especially when the German lab also collaborates with US institutes. What these people do is all in compliance with the law, unlike US companies that set up work arounds to sell their products by going through intermediaries that are not on US soil, but for people in Germany and South Korea, countries that have always been stuck between two sides of a cold war, trying to remain friends with both sides has become increasingly challenging. They are both well aware that their security is dependent on support from the US, but as technocrats and mafia-sorts do battle, keeping clean shoes is challenging.

By some measures, academia has always operated as an entity that has no respect for international boundaries and this was its strength, but in times of war, knowledge becomes weaponized. Even though conflicts today seem to fly under the radar, this doesn’t mean that there are no casualties. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that people who are involved in the transfer of sensitive technology are simply eliminated in discrete ways.

This leads me to wonder about the extent to which international collaboration in fundamental physics is restricted. There was a conference last year in Hamburg during which dual use (military/civilian) applications of free electron laser technologies was discussed and from what I gathered, the conclusion was that military uses of the technology have been tried out and ruled out. This left the doors of international collaboration open within that sphere, but what happens if a nuclear physicist goes abroad to spread knowledge to populations that are not typically invited to conferences? (I honestly don’t know since I didn’t study nuclear physics.)