A climate science lab at Texas A&M University has been closed after ties to a Chinese university were deemed a security risk.
The International Laboratory for High-Resolution Earth System Prediction, or iHESP, was established in 2017 between Texas A&M, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in Colorado, and the Qingdao Pilot National Laboratory for Marine Science and Technology, in China. The three institutions had agreed to share funding, experts and computing power to develop fine-grained computer models that predict how climate change would affect the Earth.
The first phase of the partnership was to last until 2023. But in December 2021, the project was unexpectedly halted, with immediate effect.
The closure was partly attributed to financial problems with the Chinese partner. The Qingdao lab had failed to honor its promised $2 million payment to fund iHESP, said Kelly S. Brown, a spokesperson for Texas A&M. Even if the lab hadn’t defaulted on the money, though, it would have faced another barrier: the Texas A&M University system had the iHESP contract marked for termination.
The lab was on a list of foreign agreements that the system wanted the College Station campus to be terminated over national security fears. The Texas A&M system did not respond to: the chronicle‘s questions about how the system determined iHESP posed a security risk, and did not answer questions about other contracts on the list for termination.
The Texas A&M University system had evaluated all kinds of Chinese and Russian agreements, including “animal use, study abroad, gift agreements, book publishing agreements, nondisclosure agreements,” Brown said. It made individual decisions about which such partnerships posed the risk that scientists would steal technological know-how, in favor of another country, she said.
A spokesperson for the National Center for Atmospheric Research said the decision to terminate iHESP comes from Texas A&M. The center ceased work on the project on January 31, and as a result, “seven to eight” center employees lost some of their funding. Those employees have moved to other projects, the spokesperson wrote in an email.
Emails and phone calls to the Qingdao National Laboratory sent Friday evening local time were not immediately answered.
Working with the FBI
The lab’s closure came just in time to respond to some political pressure. In February 2022, Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, said, publicly posted that he had sent letters to 22 American universities, urging them to end academic and research partnerships that could benefit the Chinese military. In his letter to John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M University system, Rubio called on the College Station campus to end its partnership with Ocean University of China, which is located in the city of Qingdao and cooperating with the Chinese navy.
Rubio’s letter never mentions iHESP, but Ocean University does mention as a member institution of the Qingdao Pilot National Laboratory, the Chinese partner of iHESP. And a faculty page for Lixin Wu, director of the Qingdao lab, says he is also vice president of Ocean University.
Sharp and M. Katherine Banks, the president of the College Station campus, wrote back to Rubio in a letter public letter dated the following day: “With regard to your questions regarding Texas A&M University’s ties to Ocean University, those ties no longer exist or are being terminated as part of our rigorous, ongoing review and cooperation with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI ). There will be no further university-sanctioned investigation.”
Brown said Texas A&M University has terminated three dozen foreign agreements in the past year in the course of regular, rolling reviews. Before that, the university also terminated the position of a professor because of fear of influence from the Chinese government: Zhengdong Cheng was arrested and charged with hiding ties to a Chinese university in 2020. His case is still pending†
In late February, the Justice Department announced an end to the controversial China Initiative, a Trump-era attempt to prevent China from stealing US intellectual property through academic collaboration, resulting in unsuccessful prosecutions. Critics of the initiative said it had created an atmosphere of intolerance against researchers of Chinese descent.
‘There is no winner here’
But even as an era of suspicion of Chinese academic collaborations comes to an end, the ramifications remain. The sudden termination of iHESP caused hardship for some lab members, sources familiar with the lab said the chronicle† The lab staff will reportedly be funded until the end of May, when they will have to find other work. (Brown was unable to confirm the fate of iHESP employees.) For employees still trying to establish their careers in science, losing the lab early is obstacles to completing their research and publishing papers, the key to success. career development.
It is also a loss to science. iHESP had provided data that is mentioned, among other things, in a large international climate report.
The world’s climate models are getting better, but it’s still difficult to predict how rising global temperatures will affect local weather because it requires so much computing power, researchers at iHESP wrote in a paper. paper published in the Journal of Advances in Modeling Earth Systems in November 2020. “Through international cooperation, we are able to meet this challenge,” they wrote.
“There is no winner here,” said Xuebin Zhang, a Canadian government climate researcher who is not involved with iHESP. He said he could not estimate the security risk posed by iHESP, but noted that international cooperation is essential not only to mitigate the effects of climate change, but even to study them. The computing power needed is such that “no country can really do it well,” he said. “We need to get all the resources we have from around the world.”