Universities in the EU ought to appoint spy-catchers to stop China and others stealing secrets, the European Commission has suggested.
The special “individual” or “group” would liaise with national intelligence services “interested in dealing with issues of foreign infringement”, the commission said.
They would identify “areas of vulnerability” in their institutes, such as access to labs or computers.
And they would give security briefings on campus, for instance to “PhD fellows and/or researchers traveling to foreign countries that might not share our scientific values”.
That was one idea in a five-page “concept note” sent by the commission to national authorities and universities in Europe in February, now seen by EUobserver.
“The possible development of guidelines at EU level is currently being discussed at a preliminary stage,” an EU source said.
“No decision has been taken on the final format and legal basis of a possible document,” the source added.
The initiative came in reaction to “foreign interference” of a “coercive, covert, deceptive, [and] corrupting” nature in EU research institutes, the source noted.
“Such activities have been observed in the EU and the guidelines could be a tool to partly tackle foreign interference,” the source told this website.
The guidelines were meant to be “state-agnostic”, the concept note said.
The agnosticism comes amid diplomatic sensitivity, with China tending to react badly to EU criticism, such as its recent accusations that Beijing was spreading coronavirus disinformation.
But the EU note mentioned China four times on its front page and was born out of a meeting on China in December in which European academics raised the alarm.
The Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) in Belgium, last year, also decided to cut ties with the Confucius Institute, a Chinese offshoot, after Belgium’s homeland security service declared its head, Xinning Song, persona non grata.
And the EU commission’s spotlight on industrial espionage at research institutes comes amid wider Sino-European mistrust.
EU states are wary of installing Chinese 5G data networks. They are disturbed by China’s investment in strategic industries. Chinese hackers have been targeting Europe. And Chinese firms have been accused of stealing Western intellectual property on a vast scale for years on end.
In this climate, European universities “are remarkably open in their approach to international collaboration,” the commission concept note pointed out.
And their openness has “facilitated foreign interference”, it added.
Other ideas in Brussels’ paper included signing contracts with overseas entities on “what will happen to the data” they generate in joint projects.
“Might the research violate ethical standards or national or European export controls” on “dual-use” technology, EU universities ought to ask themselves, the commission suggested.
Dual-use technology is items which can be used in civilian or military applications.
“Might the structure of the financing create issues or dependencies?,” EU universities should also ask.
The concept paper underlined that international academic collaboration has produced “world-class” success stories.
“The purpose of such guidelines is not to curb international collaboration but to encourage a culture in which risks of international collaboration are managed and benefits realised,” the EU source said.
The ideas in the concept note, as well as the replies the commission gets from member states and from academics, were “without prejudice to the final position of the European Commission on the matters described within,” the source added.
The Chinese EU mission declined to comment.