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Technology

Japan tightens rules on tech theft to safeguard research with US

Government to require funding disclosures to spot security risks in academia

Protecting cutting-edge developments in fields like biotech, artificial intelligence and quantum technology can be a matter of national security, since they can often be used for military applications.

TOKYO -- Seeking to promote joint research with the U.S. in quantum technology, artificial intelligence and other top fields, Japan will impose tougher disclosure rules on universities to keep information that could be used for military purposes out of foreign hands.  

The government plans to start requiring university researchers to report any financial contributions from foreign and other external sources when applying for public funds. They will face restrictions on receiving such funding if found to have made false reports.

A government innovation promotion committee decided on the plan on Tuesday. Guidelines will be finalized by the end of the year. Japan is taking the step following an agreement in mid-April between Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and U.S. President Joe Biden on bilateral cooperation in cutting-edge research.

Fields like biotechnology and artificial intelligence have emerged as major flashpoints in the growing technological rivalry between the U.S. and China. Because these technologies often have both civilian and military applications, Washington wants to make sure information that could threaten national security will not leak out of Japan.

Of particular concern to Tokyo is China's aggressive efforts to advance scientific research. Beijing's Thousand Talents program, launched more than a decade ago, aims to lure overseas Chinese researchers back home and foreign scientists into China.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, second left, chairs a meeting of a government innovation promotion committee on April 27.   © Kyodo

"We must dispel concerns of illicit demands from and technological leaks to overseas actors in order to ensure Japan's economic security," Shinji Inoue, Japan's state minister for science and technology policy, told reporters Tuesday.

China accounted for 920,000 or so natural sciences papers published from 2016 to 2018, more than any other country in the world, data from Japan's education ministry shows.

Given Beijing's aggressive efforts to bring home Chinese scientists, cutting-edge technologies could make their way to China through individual researchers. In June 2020, a federal grand jury indicted Charles Lieber, a former chair of Harvard University's Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology on charges of making false statements regarding his alleged involvement in Thousand Talents.

The State Department announced that September the revocation of visas for 1,000-plus "high-risk graduate students and research scholars" suspected of having ties to the Chinese military.

Such crackdowns are expected to continue in the Biden administration. Japan hopes to tighten controls on sensitive technology in coordination with the U.S. and Europe to prevent leaks and pave the way for further research cooperation.

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