Research Security Virtual Symposium

March, 2021

Research Security Virtual Symposium

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Welcome, everyone. All of us at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are delighted to be hosting this American Research Enterprise Security Symposium.  

An intelligent approach to the security of our research enterprise is critical to our national security, to our economic security and leadership in discovery and innovation, and to the soft power that accrues to the United States because of the global stature of its universities. 

Here at Rensselaer, we often tell our students that technology rests on a knife’s edge — that it can be used for good or for ill — and that as future leaders, they should always choose the good, which may not always be obvious.

The process of discovery and invention that undergirds new technologies also rests on a knife’s edge — something I am keenly aware of, as both the leader of a technological research university, and as someone who has served in advisory roles focused on national security and intelligence at the highest levels, including on the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, where I served as co-chair; the National Commission for the Review of the Research and Development Programs of the United States Intelligence Community; and the Secretary of State’s International Security Advisory Board; and having earlier served as Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. 

We all understand that the openness of American universities is fundamental to their greatness, and to the greatness of our national innovation ecosystem. At Rensselaer, where the “polytechnic” in our name comes from the Greek for “skilled in many arts,” we envision ourselves as The New Polytechnic, a crossroads for collaborations across disciplines, sectors, generations, and geographies, focused on addressing humanity’s most sweeping challenges, while armed with the most advanced tools and technologies.

These challenges, ranging from climate change to our current COVID-19 pandemic, are global, which helps to explain why the conduct of science and engineering research is international. As measured by research published in peer-reviewed science and engineering journals, U.S. scientists and engineers have long collaborated with their peers in other nations — with China, in the past several years, generating by far the greatest number of co-authors for U.S. researchers. 

How and why does this happen? Some of it comes because of investments by other nations, especially China, in building up their own science and engineering research enterprises. Those researchers then collaborate with their counterparts around the world, including those in the U.S. 

Many of these international collaborations are seeded when international students study in the United States. As you know, the United States welcomes more international students than any other nation, nearly 1.1 million in the 2019-2020 school year, with more than a third of that total from China and just under a fifth from India. 

More than a third of these international students are graduate students, whom our research enterprise has come to heavily depend upon. Without them, work in many academic research centers would come to a halt.

Indeed, of the nearly 43,000 doctorates awarded in science and engineering fields in the United States in 2019, 37% were earned by temporary visa holders. In mathematics and computer science and engineering, international students earn the majority of doctorates. In 2019, four out of five of these international doctoral recipients committed to positions in the United States. Clearly, one of the reasons we remain the most knowledge- and technology-intensive economy is because of the remarkable talent we draw from around the globe, talent which contributes to both academia and industry.

Nonetheless, we are on another knife’s edge — because some nations are exploiting, for their own benefit, the openness of academic science and engineering as we practice it here in the United States — whether for intelligence gathering, or for the theft of the advanced technologies that emerge in academic laboratories, in order to boost their own militaries and economies.

Among the distinguished panelists you will hear from shortly is Mr. John Demers, Assistant Attorney General for National Security, who is chair of the Department of Justice China Initiative, which is focused on the theft of trade secrets, hacking, and economic espionage by Chinese entities. His group estimates that 80% of all the economic espionage prosecutions that Department of Justice brings — which include alleged thefts of university research — involve actions that would benefit the Chinese state. 

Of course, we should not be complacent about the remaining 20%! 

In 2018, the Department of Justice indicted a group of Iranians with a suspected connection to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, for a campaign of cyber intrusions that targeted 144 American universities and 176 universities in other nations, and that stole 31 terabytes of academic documents and data. A series of recent phishing campaigns that targeted universities also is suspected of being linked to Iran.  In 2020, a group of hackers, associated with Russian intelligence, is suspected of having attempted to steal coronavirus vaccine research data from universities and companies in the United States, Britain, and Canada.

However, China is a special case, in its intense government-led focus on a technological path to economic and geopolitical dominance, which includes escalating investments in science and technology education, in research and development, and in advanced manufacturing in targeted fields — as well as using digital and medical technologies to draw developing nations into its orbit — especially those with needed and desired natural resources — through the Belt and Road Initiative, the development of a Digital Silk Road, and most recently, through the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

China is a special case, also, in the complexity of its relationship with the United States, in that China is both a key economic partner and a geopolitical rival; and in its use of non-traditional collectors of intelligence, data, and sensitive technologies. 

Indeed, the 2017 Chinese National Intelligence Law makes it clear that Chinese citizens can be compelled by intelligence agencies to cooperate in intelligence gathering.

These non-traditional collectors can include international students, postdocs, and visiting researchers, as well as faculty at United States universities, who may have been targeted by China’s “brain gain” programs, including its Thousand Talents program, which offer lavish rewards for academic experts who set up laboratories in China. 

I am so pleased, and it is important, that we have with us today experts from the federal agencies that are the largest funders of academic research, who can tell us about the many conflicts of interest engineered by the Chinese state that can lead to the unlawful transfer of U.S. academic research to China. We welcome:

  • Dr. Bindu Nair, Deputy Director for Basic Research in the Office of the Secretary of Defense;
  • Dr. Rebecca Spyke Keiser, Head of the Office of International Science and Engineering, and the inaugural Chief of Research Security Strategy and Policy at the National Science Foundation; and
  • Dr. Michael Lauer, Deputy Director for Extramural Research at the National Institutes of Health.


They will join Assistant Attorney General Demers on our first panel, which will focus on the federal efforts to protect the American research enterprise. Our second panel will consider an actual national security case that arose at West Virginia University. Our third panel will bring together university experts in research, information security, and compliance to discuss best practices and the road ahead, as we work to make our students and faculty more aware of both the potential risks involved, and of the need for disclosure.

I thank all of our guests for joining us. This is sure to be a fascinating morning — one designed to encourage the two qualities most necessary to addressing this nuanced issue: transparency and cooperation across sectors.

Please allow me to add one more idea to the conversation today: While we need to construct careful defenses against academic espionage and the theft of intellectual property — the best defense may be a more dynamic offense. 

Given the intense focus on science and engineering in other nations, the United States needs to revitalize its longstanding leadership in innovation and discovery. It is time for a national strategy that includes greater public investments in research and development, which have been falling as a percentage of the federal budget for decades — in recent years, to under 3%. 

Our experience during the COVID crisis — with the rapid development of highly effective vaccines, thanks in part to research on modified messenger RNA, conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, and on structure-based vaccine antigen design at the National Institutes of Health — suggests the enormous value of public investments in science.

We also need to become much more successful as a nation in cultivating our own homegrown talent. I long have called our failure to bring women and underrepresented minorities into the sciences and engineering in sufficient numbers a “quiet crisis.”  

It makes no sense, for example, that women earn less than 19% of bachelor’s degrees in computer sciences, or that African Americans earn less than 4% of bachelor’s degrees in engineering. Equally, it makes no sense that we do not do more to draw all Americans, male and female (of all ethnicities), into advanced study in these critical fields of science, technology, mathematics, and engineering. To compete with other nations, we need the full complement of talent on board. 

Indeed, a recent report by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence concludes that the greatest deficit the United States faces in artificial intelligence for national security and defense is a dearth of talent, and proposes “growing” a pipeline of talent in technology “with the same seriousness of purpose that we grow military officers.”

Food for thought, but a subject for another day!

I am sure that everyone will find our program this morning important, informative, interesting, and enlightening.

And now, I am delighted to welcome Mr. Thomas Relford, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Albany Field Office.