Fifteen universities are accused of "unintentionally generating research" that "may be of use to China's military conglomerates" in the reportLucus Maddalena

The University of Cambridge is one of several universities accused of inadvertently furthering Chinese military capabilities in a controversial new report published by CIVITAS on Monday.

CIVITAS are an independent think-tank who “‘strive to benefit public debate through independent research, reasoned argument...and open discussion.”’

The report, entitled ‘Inadvertently Arming China?’, concludes that there is a “‘pervasive presence of Chinese military-linked conglomerates and universities in the sponsorship of high-technology research centres in many leading UK universities.”’

Fifteen universities are accused in the report of “‘unintentionally generating research that is sponsored by and may be of use to China’s military conglomerates, including those with activities in the production of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) as well as hypersonic missiles.”’

A spokesperson for the University told Varsity, is “a disingenuous misrepresentation of the University of Cambridge. It is wholly reliant on tenuous links between academics, particularly a tutor at one college who conducts no formal research at the University.”

Referring to Cambridge in particular, the report attempts to trace academic links between China’s National University of Defence Technology (NUDT), located in Changsa, Hunan, and researchers at the Cavendish Laboratory. It suggests that researchers at the two universities “’have cooperated in research on gyroscopes with researchers from China’s (NUDT), whose gyroscopy laboratory is a listed military facility and which has been sanctioned by Japan for its work on missile development.” ’Gyroscopes can be used to measure and maintain orientation in missile guidance systems.

In 2018 the Chinese government said that exchanges between Cambridge and NUDT will “‘greatly raise the nation’s power in the fields of national defence, communications, anti-jamming for imaging and high-precision navigation.”’ However, the University clarified in the report that “The Cavendish Laboratory does not have, nor has ever had, any projects, research grants or contracts with NUDT or other military institutions in China. There was a memorandum of understanding between the groups, but this never led to any formal research funding, lapsed in 2018 and has not been renewed.”

The University spokesperson emphasised to Varsity that “The University of Cambridge has no formal links with the NUDT or any other Chinese military organisation.”

Another link the report sought to draw between the University and the NUDT was the arrival of a visiting fellow in 2019 who was an expert in nanoporous aerogels and their use in high performance light absorption and thermal insulation. The report says nanoporous aerogels “‘have wide potential dual-use applications, including in projectile coatings such as for hypersonic missiles.”’

In response to this allegation the University responded that the expert “was a visitor at the Cambridge Graphene Centre (CGC) in 2019 [and] was invited under normal academic procedures because he has expertise in aerogels which the CGC didn’t have at the time (i.e. he had expertise that Cambridge wanted, not the other way around).” The aim of the CGC, a research institute in Cambridge University, is “‘to investigate the science and technology of graphene, carbon allotropes, layered crystals and hybrid nanomaterials.”’

“He did not carry out any experiments, did not have access to laboratories and did not attend group research meetings during his time at the University. The CGC now has two students working on aerogels which began after his departure. Their work is not in collaboration with NUDT”, the University detailed in the report.

The final link the report drew between the University and the NUDT was the work of a Bye-Fellow at Gonville and Caius College. A Bye-Fellow is a Fellow whose’s funding does not come from the College’s endowment and thus takes no part in the governance of the College.

This Bye-Fellow, who the report did not name, is a long-term visitor to the Cavendish Laboratory, the University’s physics department, and is also listed as a ‘Distinguished Visiting Professor’ at NUDT. They have previously conducted research with a scholar in China, Xianwen Ran, whose other work includes studies of high-altitude nuclear detonation.

The Bye-Fellow remains a High-Level Foreign Talent, a position awarded by the Chinese government, having been awarded membership of their ‘1000-Talent plan’ in 2015. While the report concedes that there is no suggestion that the professor has engaged in any form of illicit knowledge transfer, it cautions that “‘there may at times be a danger of the future co-opting of research against their intentions for dual-use purposes.”’


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Speaking exclusively to Varsity the Bye-Fellow stated that they “worked at China’s National University of Defense Technology for three months per year from June 2014 to June 2017” and that the “main objective of my employment was to increase the prestige of NUDT in fundamental science.”

They continued: “All of my research was published in peer-reviewed academic journals, and focused on fundamental science of granular materials, such as sand. None of my research could be used for any military application. I also taught a course on granular materials and co-supervised three postgraduate students on the same subject.”

Regarding the Bye-Fellow the University said that they are “not an employee of the University and do not work on any research grant or contract involving the Cavendish Laboratory. They are a Bye-Fellow at Gonville & Caius College, where they teach Physics to students for up to six hours per week during term time. The University and Colleges are separate legal and financial institutions.”

Gonville & Caius College declined to comment.