MIT materials researcher Yoel Fink said he had never seen anything like it in his nearly 30 years as a scientist at one of the world's premiere engineering universities.
In a small MIT conference room with the blackout shades pulled down, FBI agents told him and other researchers in the fall that rogue nations like China, Russia and India were sending secret agents to steal intellectual property from university labs and asked them to take steps to stop it, including vetting their staff.
“I've never had a formal threat briefing by law enforcement here,” Fink said, saying the experience left him shaken. “Law enforcement should come onto campus only when there is clear evidence of a crime.”
Campus administrators at MIT are following new national security guidelines first announced under Trump and enacted by the Biden administration that are supposed to protect research labs from spying and international espionage. At MIT, that has meant not only on-campus briefings by the FBI, but a new requirement asking professors who receive federal funding to sign a disclosure form certifying that their students are not participating in suspicious activities.
And while many MIT faculty aren’t happy about it, experts say it's a sign of what’s to come at other U.S. research universities.
“It will absolutely be coming to you soon — if it's not there already,” said Kristin West, director of the Research Ethics and Compliance Committee at the Council on Governmental Relations, an association representing more than 200 top research institutions.
Authoritieshave previously estimated intellectual property theft costs the U.S. $200 billion a year. But the steps have raised criticism that the government is going too far and will alienate talented researchers or discourage them from working in the U.S. West said concerns about xenophobia and the loss of global talent are legitimate.
“I think you have to be afraid that somebody's going to throw the baby out with the bath water, because professors are just going to say, ‘This is too much trouble – puts me at too much risk. I'm just not going to bother with international collaborations anymore,’” she said. “And that hurts science.”
Fears of law enforcement overreach are front of mind at MIT following the case of mechanical engineering professor Gang Chen, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was accused under the Trump administration of concealing his affiliation with the Chinese government in applications for grants he received from the U.S. Energy Department. The Justice Department abandoned the case, a high-profile one, when federal prosecutors said they could no longer meet the burden of proof at trial.
Fink, the materials scientist, described Chen as “a brother,” saying the two men grew close following Chen’s arrest. Four months after the Justice Department dropped Chen’s case, about 60 researchers were briefed by the FBI about ongoing threats from foreign spies working in their labs in a power point presentation.
Fink said the upshot was this: “You need to know that there may very well be spies on campus, and you need to try to find them.”
MIT would not confirm the FBI’s meetings on its campus. A spokesperson said only that there are “occasional exchanges between researchers and various federal agencies on topics of mutual interest, which sometimes involve discussions regarding research security.”
But in the months following the briefings, MIT began asking researchers who receive funding from the Department of Energy to sign a document that asks them to make “reasonable inquiry” with researchers to determine if they are participating in any recruitment programs involving China, Russia, North Korea, or Iran specifically.
MIT said the form is a required part of federal guidelines, and that it has a history of advocating for ways to balance sensitive research security concerns with the need to offer a welcoming research environment.
Under the CHIPS & Science Act signed into law by President Joe Biden in August, research universities that receive any federal funding will be required to certify that none of their researchers or students are participating in “a malign foreign talent recruitment program” starting next summer.
U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm broadly defended the measure on a recent trip to Massachusetts. She said, “the whole genesis of this is to make sure that American taxpayer dollars fund American research and researchers.”
Granholm said the focus is not on brilliant foreign researchers from around the world — or with the Chinese diaspora, like Gang Chen.
“Our grievance is with the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party and making sure that America can remain competitive and can be a leader,” she said.
And that has left some research experts wondering whether the new measures are misdirected.
“We remain extremely concerned about the chilling impact on researchers, but also on our international students,” said Sarah Spreitzer of the American Council on Education, an association representing 1,700 colleges and universities.
“I think an international student trying to decide whether or not to come to study in the United States may look at some of these things and think, ‘You know, maybe I should just switch and study in Canada or in the UK, so it is a big concern,” Spreitzer said.
MIT professors agree, and said the changes made them uneasy, and even fearful or paranoid around students and colleagues.
Keith Nelson, who has taught physical chemistry at MIT for four decades, said suggesting professors investigate the backgrounds of their graduate students and postdocs is wholly unreasonable. He’s advising his younger colleagues not to sign.
“As soon as I’m the one who has to sit down with my student from China and ask those questions, it can’t help but somehow poison the relationship,” Nelson said. “Afterall, I’m not asking that of my American citizen students.”
Gabriela Schlau-Cohen, who teaches physical chemistry at MIT, said she was surprised when she was asked to sign the disclosure statement.
After consulting with an attorney to better understand the document’s jargon, she said she has refused to sign it unless the university changes some of its language or allows her to make edits.
“I’m not trained to do ‘reasonable inquiry,’” she said. “My goal is to educate my students, not to interrogate them.”
It’s still unclear what the repercussions are for professors who refuse to sign the new affirmation form. Asked if they would lose their funding, a spokesperson for MIT only said that administrators are not aware of any researchers refusing to sign.
Inside his lab in the basement below MIT’s iconic Great Dome, Fink, the materials scientist, equated the reaction to potential espionage to some key findings in his research exploring whether fabrics can monitor health risks in real-time. When the human body detects a small danger, he said, its reaction is sometimes worse than the threat itself.
GBH News reporter Mark Herz contributed to this report.