Weighing up openness and healthy suspicion

What do TU Delft researchers do if talented Chinese researchers armed with grants and in close contact with the Chinese army approach them? We asked three Delft researchers.

Before hiring NUDT-alumni Delft researchers speak extensively with the PhD students in question. (Illustration: Liam van Dijk)

What does this article discuss?

  • Three scientists at TU Delft talk about some of the issues they considered while working with researchers at the National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), a People’s Liberation Army educational institution.
  • Professor of Atmospheric Remote Sensing Herman Russchenberg (Faculty of Civil Engineering and Geosciences, CEG) does not view the researchers with whom he works as military personnel.
  • Computer scientist Doctor Mathijs de Weerdt of the Algorithms Section (Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics & Computer Science, EEMCS) says it is not up to individual researchers to decide whether a collaboration with a Chinese partner is sound.
  • Professor of Multi-Actor Systems Alexander Verbraeck (Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management, TPM) likes to work with NUDT researchers. “We often learn more from them than they from us. The quality of the students at the NUDT is above average.”

Money and talent. You need both if you want to make it in the scientific world as a top researcher. It can take months to prepare and submit a subsidy application for a Doctoral Programme to the NWO (the Dutch Research Council) and get a successful answer. How tempting is it then to take on talented Chinese engineers when they approach you with a grant in the pocket that covers three quarters of the costs?

Every year, China gives thousands of study grants to researchers that want to obtain their doctorate abroad. Many young Chinese at TU Delft have a China Scholarship Council (CSC) grant that covers their travel expenses, visas and board and lodgings.

‘We use radar for cloud research, we don’t concern ourselves with missiles’

If Chinese students come forward who are talented, interested in climate science and whose expertise match his research strategy, Professor of Atmospheric Remote Sensing Herman Russchenberg (CEG) does not usually need to stop and think.

Russchenberg’s group researches radar methodology that improves weather forecasting. The Chinese army is interested in radar technology. Is it wise to accept NUDT alumni? This question is even more pressing if you think that some of the researchers will return to the NUDT after they obtain their doctorate.

What issues does Russchenberg, who has had one doctoral candidate and one postdoc from NUDT in his group over the last three years, weigh up?

“I have become a little more cautious about accepting NUDT alumni. However, all our research is open science. We do not work with non-disclosure and we publish all our findings. So I think it is unlikely that there is a military advantage specifically for China from the research.”

“Further, we do not put our efforts into technology that the military can use. We use radar to gather information about clouds. This is a different angle than radar used to control and detect rockets. But it is true that you are giving people knowledge and skills and you can of course question this.”

Russchenberg does not view the NUDT alumnus with whom he works as military personnel. “In practice, there is little military orientation among a multitude of research groups at NUDT. NUDT also has a college of meteorology and oceanography.

“It is not that black and white. TNO (The Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research) also works on military technology, and we work with TNO. We do not, however, work with researchers that work for the defence industry. We have even had students from the Koninklijke Militaire Academie (Royal Military Academy), who have graduated on non-military subjects.”

What Russchenberg says is to not be blinded by words such as ‘military’ and ‘defence’ in the names of institutions.

That said, the NUDT is squarely part of the Central Military Commission, the most important military agency in China. Defence specialist Danny Pronk of the Clingendael Institute had previously told Delta that you should not take this too lightly. “If NUDT researchers work on radar technology, you must assume that they are doing so to serve the army.”

The NUDT is not secretive about its military character, as evidenced by the promotional films it publishes.

Grants used to exert pressure
Computer scientistist Dr Mathijs de Weerdt of the Algorithms Section (EEMCS) is more cautious than his colleague. He does see a danger in the China Scholarship Council grants, the grants that China uses to send its young researchers out into the world. He is concerned that these students can be put under greater pressure by the Chinese Government to do military related research when they return to China.

It pains De Weerdt to say this as he has worked with an NUDT student on a scholarship and it was a positive experience. He worked with the doctoral candidate on mathematical formulas that help solve planning problems. The algorithms could be used for various purposes such as planning issues in traffic, in factory operations or satellite navigation.

‘The policy was that this kind of cooperation was not a problem’

“We worked well together,” says De Weerdt. Before bringing the doctoral candidate in question to TU Delft, he first sounded out TU Delft. “The policy of both our national Government as well as TU Delft was that this sort of collaboration was not a problem.”

He continues. “I discussed the plan for his research with him in-depth. I had the impression that while he did consult his promotor – as I would do myself – he in fact had complete freedom. I got the impression that he was a clever researcher who knew what he wanted and I was confident that it would go well.”

De Weerdt consciously agreed with the doctoral candidate that he would do research into applications that would not be directly used by the army. He also made agreements about other aspects of the research such as about publishing results, codes and research data, for example. “We publish all our results. I do this with my Dutch and European doctoral candidates too. This precludes more knowledge going to China than if the research would be done by a non-Chinese person. After all, we maintain an open science policy.”

That said, he is still cautious. “The next time, I would think even more carefully and consult more before working with a CSC student.” However, he does not believe that these sort of issues should be up to individual researchers.

Exaggerated focus on military universities
Professor of Multi-Actor Systems Alexander Verbraeck (TPM) believes that the emphasis on military universities is exaggerated. He does not believe that it really matters what kind of university you work with, military or civil.

‘Where do you draw the line?’

He supports collaboration and he is happy to work with NUDT researchers. “We often learn more from them than they from us. The quality of the students from the NUDT is above average.”

“We would be fooling ourselves if we were to think that it is safer to work with non-military universities.” He believes that the knowledge that would emerge from these would be just as easily used by the army. “It would only happen more subtly.”

Verbraeck does not mind where the engineers work when they obtain their doctorates. He believes that political considerations should not play a role in accepting researchers. “If they do, we may as well stop hiring international students and colleagues. Where do you draw the line? Should we then not also reject students from Iran, Russia and the Middle East?”

Tomas van Dijk

This article is part of series about academic cooperation with China. Read our other stories too:

  • The Sons: about how TU Delft inadvertently helps the Chinese army.
  • The military: about Chinese military scientists who come to TU Delft to acquire knowledge for the Liberation Army. 
  • The history: about how the view of collaboration with China has changed over the years. (Translation in progress)
  • Our journalistic statement of accountability on the hows and whys of our China-investigation.
Editor Redactie

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