Top US research universities freeze ties with Huawei

Top research universities in the United States have been reviewing their research ties with Chinese telecoms giant Huawei after repeated warnings from the United States administration about alleged intellectual property and spying risks from research collaboration. Both the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University have revealed bans on future research collaboration with the company.

The freeze on future collaborations by Berkeley and Stanford, universities with cutting-edge artificial intelligence research and engineering departments, comes just weeks after Britain’s University of Oxford announced it would suspend new research grants and donations from Huawei after its Committee to Review Donations met in mid-January.

The University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) has put a stop to new research collaborations with Huawei including a ban on any new funding or ‘gifts’ from the Chinese company and its corporate affiliates – some 37 subsidiaries and affiliates of Huawei are listed by the university.

This comes after “careful internal review and consultation with peer institutions”, according to an internal letter to the university’s senior management, including school deans, dated 30 January from Randy Howard Katz, the university’s vice-chancellor for research.

The letter said the ban on new funding would come into effect the same day, just two days after the US Justice Department made public its criminal indictment against Huawei, accusing the Chinese company of stealing trade secrets and violating US sanctions on business with Iran, among the 13 charges.

“UC Berkeley holds its research partners to the highest possible standards of corporate conduct, and the severity of these accusations raises questions and concerns that only our judicial system can address,” the letter said.

But it also pledged “for the time being, [to] continue to honour existing multi-year collaborative agreements and contracts with Huawei that provide support for research projects already underway. None of these projects involve sensitive technological secrets or knowledge.”

Howard Katz said the university engages only in fundamental research “whose results are openly shared and made accessible to all. In addition, none of the existing agreements provide the firm [Huawei] with unique or exclusive rights to intellectual property resulting from the research,” the letter stated.

Huawei and its affiliates have provided some US$7.8 million to the university over the past two years, according to the university. “To date Huawei has been a responsible collaborator with the campus. Pending new information or developments, the university will continue to honour its contractual commitments,” the university said.

Stanford moratorium

Stanford University has also “established a moratorium on new engagements, gifts, affiliate membership fees and other support from Huawei”, according to a university spokesperson last week, who added, “We are sensitive to the federal [US] government’s concerns about technologies being appropriated by other countries to the detriment of US national security”.

The university stressed, however, that it found “nothing inappropriate” with the institution’s past collaboration with Huawei.

Huawei is a member of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory’s AI Affiliates Program, whose benefits for corporate members include “active engagement with faculty and students” and invitations to all retreats, conferences and seminars as well as custom-hosted visits to Stanford for discussion on research topics, networking with AI lab researchers and regular updates on AI lab research results.

Corporate members usually provide US$200,000 per year “with an expected three-year commitment”, according to the programme guidelines, with the funds used to support faculty and student research and other programmes of the affiliates scheme.

Huawei is also a member of the SystemX Alliance run by Stanford’s engineering school to bring together Stanford researchers and private companies to tackle various engineering challenges. Corporate members contribute US$175,000 a year to the scheme.

Under the university’s new moratorium, Huawei will not be able to continue its participation in either scheme, both of which give it valuable access to cutting-edge research.

Other Chinese companies involved in the Stanford affiliates programmes include Shenzhen-based internet giant Tencent and Beijing-based Didi Chuxing Technology, a ride sharing and autonomous technology conglomerate.

Stanford has said in the past that such schemes with corporations do not offer any rights to intellectual property.

Other universities in the US have been reviewing their Huawei-supplied equipment to comply with the US National Defense Authorization Act signed into law by US President Donald Trump last August, which bans recipients of federal funding from using telecoms equipment, video recording services and other components made by blacklisted Chinese companies, which include Huawei and ZTE.

US authorities fear the equipment could be a back door for espionage, including on researchers working on leading-edge technologies.