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Technology

G-7 plans steps to defend academic research with eye on China

Major economies will craft rules to safeguard tech with military applications

G-7 nations seek to promote free and safe research collaborations among universities and corporations while preventing data leaks.

TOKYO -- The Group of Seven nations will agree on creating guidelines to prevent leaks of sensitive research data when leaders meet this week, Nikkei has learned, looking to protect joint projects amid growing concerns about the risk of theft by China.

The U.S. and fellow major economies will discuss including this in a statement to be released after the three-day summit that begins Friday. The statement will underscore the view that the science and technology cannot be expected to progress without measures to prevent research from being stolen by other countries.

Given concerns about interfering in free and independent research, the guidelines will only target projects on AI, quantum technologies and other areas that have military applications.

They aim to address risks posed by China's expanding presence in international joint research, which some observers think Beijing is using to siphon cutting-edge technology. As the U.S. competes with China for technological superiority, Washington looks to collaborate with allies and partners to protect its advantages.

A working group will be formed this year to hammer out the details, including the areas to be covered and specific steps to take. The measures may be limited to advanced technologies with potential military applications, such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

One proposal calls for creating a shared list with the names and nationalities of researchers at businesses, universities and research groups, as well as information about any foreign funding these entities receive. The G-7 also will discuss the need for individual members to expand legal protections such as patent frameworks.

Countries need to iron out differences on standards to minimize the risk of information leaks through cross-border research partnerships.

The U.S., for example, has a security clearance system that restricts who can work on sensitive research, helping to protect against leaks of commercial technology that could be used for military purposes. Japan has no such system, and concerns have been raised in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party about the possibility of foreign students or researchers sending technology abroad.

The U.K. earlier this year enacted legislation requiring advance notice of foreign investment in domestic companies that work with advanced technology. The U.S. can cut off government funding for research organizations that fail to report receiving money from foreign sources.

These tactics are intended to counter measures like Beijing's Thousand Talents plan, which offers generous funding to attract standout researchers from abroad, on top of its roster of Chinese scientists working outside the country.

"Information sharing and transparency are the rule in research," said Takahiro Ueyama, a member of the Japanese government's Council for Science, Technology and Innovation.

China has grown more prominent in cross-border work, but "there are suspicions that it has used sensitive information related to national security purely for its own interests," he said.

As Japanese universities become more globalized and bring in more students from abroad, many have taken precautions against research leaks, but the problem remains.

The science ministry says 72% of Japanese universities have established export control departments to keep sensitive information from being transferred out of the country as of April 2020, up from 58% in February 2018.

Schools "should be aware of potential leak risks on a number of different fronts, including accepting foreign students and with overseas research by faculty," a ministry representative said.

Talk of greater secrecy surrounding research without direct military links rings alarm bells in much of the scientific community, where publishing studies for others to replicate and verify is the norm.

"Making results open is good for research progress," said Katsuya Tamai, a professor of intellectual property law at the University of Tokyo. "It would be very difficult for Japanese research organizations to make the decision to close them off."

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