Japan considers tougher rules on research interference amid US-China tensions

Universities that fail to disclose foreign government ties could lose their funding under a proposal.

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Panasonic Robotics Hub Tokyo.

Japan is considering new rules to prevent the leak of sensitive technology, such as sensors.Credit: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty

The Japanese government is considering tougher rules to address the risk of foreign interference in scientific research, such as more thorough vetting of visa applications from international students and researchers and requiring institutions to declare foreign sources of income.

Last month, Japan’s cabinet approved an innovation strategy for 2020, which asks government agencies, research institutes and companies to strengthen codes of conduct around research integrity and conflicts of interest, and prevent the outflow of sensitive research and technologies linked to national security, such as quantum computing, artificial intelligence and semiconductor manufacturing. The strategy also proposes that government agencies consider withholding funding from institutions that fail to declare foreign income.

The government is now considering drawing up guidelines on these issues, says Takahiro Ueyama, an executive member of Japan’s Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (CSTI), which is chaired by Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. “This is a very sensitive issue,” Ueyama says.

The development follows crackdowns by US science agencies on researchers who do not disclose foreign ties, mainly with China. In the past two months, four ethnic Chinese researchers working in the United States have been charged with visa fraud for failing to declare links to China’s military.

US relations

The Japanese government feels under pressure to strengthen its research-integrity guidelines and safeguard its scientific relationship with the United States, says Atsushi Sunami, a science-policy analyst at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Tokyo. “When the US and other western countries started talking about these issues, it was natural that Japan would also address them more clearly,” he says.

The strategy’s language mirrors that used in a December 2019 report by the science group JASON, which advises the US government. The report was commissioned by the US National Science Foundation in response to concerns about foreign governments acquiring US science and technology.

The Japanese strategy does not name any countries, but researchers say the government is mostly concerned about the activities of Chinese institutions, including those with ties to the military.

Japan’s innovation plan marks the beginning of a coordinated and strategic approach by the government to address the risk of foreign interference in sensitive research, says Nobuyuki Shirakawa, a science-policy researcher at the National Institute of Science and Technology Policy in Tokyo. Up until now, many of these activities have been regulated by a patchwork of rules and guidelines, and by voluntary oversight in universities, he says. For instance, some universities collect information about researchers’ foreign income, but it is not required, say researchers.

Sunami, who chairs a CSTI working group on safety and security, says the government also plans to investigate foreign-interference threats in Japan from countries including China, an approach that is similar to that taken by the JASON investigation last year. “We don’t know how large the risk is,” he says.

University rules

But universities are already doing the necessary due diligence when engaging with international collaborators, in accordance with existing Japanese laws, says Hideo Ohno, the president of Tohoku University in Sendai. At this stage, his university has no plans to revise its policies. “We are waiting to see what changes the government will implement, but right now it is business as usual because we are not doing much sensitive research,” he says. Many national universities, including Tohoku, have codes explicitly stating that they discourage or prohibit military research.

Ohno says researchers at Tohoku have to get university approval when accepting dual faculty positions at foreign universities. And he says that links to overseas recruitment programmes, such as China’s Thousand Talents Plan, a scheme to attract leading Chinese scientists, academics and entrepreneurs to China, have so far not raised concerns about foreign interference at Japanese universities. Last year, a US Senate investigation revealed that some Thousand Talent contracts stipulated that participating scientists agreed to abide by Chinese law, keep the contract secret and sign over any intellectual-property rights to the sponsoring Chinese institution.

Ohno says his university is prepared to declare foreign sources of funding if the government implements such a policy. “It is certainly going to be a little bit more paperwork,” he says.

The downside

But introducing stricter guidelines to tackle foreign interference could make Japanese researchers reluctant to collaborate with international partners, and discourage researchers from coming to Japan, says Hiroshi Nagano, a science-policy researcher at GRIPS.

He thinks that the risk of foreign interference is lower in Japan than in the United States, because the Japanese research environment is not as international. In 2017, 39,473 researchers came to Japan — some for short visits and others for longer stays. Of these, 6,313 were from China.

In 2017, the United States issued some 600,000 high-skilled worker visas, which include researchers, scholars and doctorate holders. Around 108,000 were H-1B visas — a category that includes faculty at universities and employees at tech firms — of which 16,500 were given to people born in China.

Taking too strong a stance on foreign interference could also expose many private universities to financial insecurity because they are heavily reliant on tuition fees from Chinese students, says Futao Huang, who studies higher-education policy at Hiroshima University. In 2019, there were 228,403 international students in higher-education institutions in Japan, almost 40% of whom came from China.

Sunami agrees that measures to protect sensitive research and strengthen research integrity should not come at the cost of open science and innovation. “The government recognizes the sensitivity of this issue among academics and is taking a very cautious approach,” he says.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-02273-w

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