International Partnerships and Funding From China and Hong Kong | Blog

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A blog post by Professors Andy Neely and Anne Ferguson-Smith


The University of Cambridge has engaged in countless collaborations with international partners throughout our history. We have always believed that the best way to tackle seemingly intractable global issues is to work in shared research endeavours across international borders. Today, as we recover from the ravages of a pandemic and continue to focus on global challenges such as combating climate change, and ensuring food security, that approach seems more important than ever.

Global research organisations like Cambridge must always be aware that there are risks in dealing with countries that might not share some of our values. These include risks to staff or student safety, or more pernicious risks such as the theft or misuse of research for, say, military purposes. In today’s rapidly changing geo-political world there must be unprecedented focus on managing these risks.

Cambridge has long-established and robust systems for approving, rejecting and scrutinising proposed international partnerships. All projects go through a strict due diligence process, which is now enhanced by our new Principles for managing risks in international engagements. These principles, and the practical guidance that sits under them, focus on fostering a risk-aware culture and empowering our academic community to promote academic freedom and uphold our institutional values in everything we do.  We also work closely with the Government’s Export Control Joint Unit and the Investment Security Unit to ensure that any national security issues are appropriately addressed.

As a global university we do not shy away from rigorous discussions about the merits of engagement with other countries that might not share our values. One current and high profile example is China. We view collaboration with Chinese academics and funders as an important part of our mission. We also believe it is essential to be open and honest about the nature and scale of this collaboration.

Over the last five years income from China has represented less than 1 percent of research grant income, less than 9 percent of fundraising income and Chinese nationals make up around 8 percent of our student body. While not insignificant these figures do not suggest a dependency.

Breaking down these figures, our research grant income (based on expenditure) from mainland China and Hong Kong averaged £3.8m, of which an average of £2.2m per year came from Huawei (including its subsidiaries). This is against a total average research income over the same period of £539m per year. Research income from China therefore amounts to 0.7 percent of our annual research grant income over the last five years. Within that, income from Huawei represents 0.5 percent. If we were to look at the data for 20/21 only, income from China was £6.1m out of a total research grant income of £586m, this represents 1 percent of our research grant income in the last financial year.

By way of comparison, Cambridge’s research grant income from the United States of America averaged £27.9m over the past five years.

We also receive philanthropic funding from China. Since 2016/17 the University has raised £626m in philanthropic income which supports scholarships, teaching and research. Of that £54m came from donors in mainland China and Hong Kong, which represents under 9 percent. Of the £54m in philanthropic income from China since 2016/17 £7.5m was committed by Huawei.

Academic freedom is maintained at all times in every research project the University conducts. No funder has the right to direct or steer research at Cambridge. In relation to Huawei, we will not engage in any research in relation to 5G and we do not use their technology platforms.

Importantly, funding from China, as with funding from around the world, allows Cambridge to undertake exceptional research. For example, Cambridge engineers have developed a new augmented reality (AR) head-mounted display (HMD) that can deliver high quality clear images directly on the retina, even if the user is wearing glasses.

The funding also helps the University to fulfil its role in society by delivering outreach programmes such as the Faculty of Mathematics Millennium Outreach project. In the 2019/20 academic year, the project’s web-based maths resources attracted over 12 million visits from users worldwide and more than 40 million page views, while over 13,000 school students and more than 2,250 teachers were involved in our face-to-face activities and online webinars and events.

We believe that values are upheld – and improvements happen – through engagement. This is, incidentally, also the UK’s approach to foreign policy and we would encourage proactive engagement from government to navigate the evolving geopolitical landscape that seeks to balance trade relations with national security considerations. We need to maintain vigilance and be alert to the potential complications of working with international partners. The new international engagement principles we have developed at Cambridge will allow us to continue to interact on vital research with partners across the world, and to do so with a full understanding of the risks as well as the benefits.