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China-US Climate Collaboration Ended Due to Security Concerns

Texas A&M cited potential foreign interference when explaining why it shut down a jointly run modeling laboratory.

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Natalia Mesa

Natalia Mesa was previously an intern at The Scientist and now freelances. She has a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Washington and a bachelor’s in biological sciences from Cornell University.

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Apr 12, 2022

ABOVE: © iStock.com, ShengYing Lin

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n December 2021, Texas A&M shuttered a climate research partnership with a Chinese university over potential security concerns, outlets reported last week. 

The International Laboratory for High-Resolution Earth System Prediction (iHESP) was a climate modeling lab run as a partnership between Texas A&M, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Colorado, and the Qingdao Pilot National Laboratory for Marine Science and Technology in China. The collaboration, which began in 2018, aimed to share supercomputing resources and technical expertise among the three institutions. The arrangement was slated to end in 2023, but Texas A&M unexpectedly terminated it in December 2021, citing concerns that it might lead to the theft of technological information, reports The Chronicle of Higher Education

The lab, which is split among the three campuses, uses supercomputers to run complex climate modeling simulations and provide more accurate predictions for future climate studies. The lab has made significant contributions to the field of climate science and to important publications, including last year’s IPCC climate report, according to The Chronicle.

There are only a few hundred supercomputers in the world, and this initiative granted US-based researchers access to China’s supercomputing resources. iHESP provided funding for researchers at all three institutions. At Texas A&M, the future of iHESP lab members is uncertain: they are funded through the end of May of this year but must find other funding afterward, The Chronicle reports.

A Texas A&M spokesperson tells Inside Climate News that the program was terminated because the Qingdao Pilot National Laboratory for Marine Science and Technology defaulted on its contract, missing a $2 million payment by roughly 11 months. However, security concerns alone likely would have been enough to shutter the program: A&M System Chief Research Security Officer Kevin Gamache tells The Chronicle that A&M’s research security policies would have led to its eventual cancellation.

The Chronicle reports that the Qingdao lab was on a list of partnerships marked for eventual termination. The university did not comment on which other institutions were also on the list, the outlet reports. 

The Texas A&M University system evaluated Chinese and Russian partnerships of all kinds, including “animal-use, study abroad, gifts agreements, book publishing agreements, nondisclosure agreements,” to formulate the list of programs slated for termination, Texas A&M spokesperson Kelly Brown tells The Chronicle. It then made individual decisions about which agreements posed risks that scientists might steal technological information for the economic or military benefit of a foreign nation, The Chronicle reports.

A spokesperson for NCAR tells The Chronicle that the decision to terminate iHESP came from Texas A&M. NCAR discontinued work on the project on January 31 and “seven to eight” staff members lost part of their funding as a result. Those staff members were moved to other projects, the spokesperson tells The Chronicle.

On February 8, Senator Marco Rubio sent letters to 22 US universities, including Texas A&M, calling on them to end partnerships with foreign universities that have “ensnared” scholars in schemes to share valuable information, he writes. The Chinese military, he writes, forms partnerships with academics to steal intellectual property. 

Rubio’s letter never names iHESP, but does call on Texas A&M to end its partnership with Ocean University in Qingdao, which works with the Chinese navy and is listed as a member institution of the Qingdao Pilot National Laboratory. 

The next day, Texas A&M responded with a public letter addressed to Rubio, stating that its security office had found and eliminated more than 200 instances of “Foreign Talent Recruitment” and security threats across Texas A&M. The university did not disclose what these instances were, but did state that affiliations with Ocean University in Qingdao “no longer exist or are being terminated as part of our rigorous, ongoing review and collaboration with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).”

Concerns about Chinese interference also led to the controversial “China Initiative,” an effort to keep China from stealing US intellectual property via institutional cooperation that was launched during the Trump Administration. Civil rights groups criticized the initiative for what they said was discrimination against Asian Americans, and it resulted in few successful prosecutions. In February, the Department of Justice ended the initiative.

“There is no winner here,” Xuebin Zhang, a climate researcher with the Canadian government who is not involved in iHESP, tells The Chronicle. He says that while he could not assess iHESP’s security risk, international collaboration is essential for mitigating and studying the effects of climate change. The computing power required is such that “no single country can actually do it well,” he says. “We need to pull all the resources we have from the entire world.”