COLLABORATION

Huawei’s terrible, horrible, very bad week – and how it’s impacting university collaboration

SOURCE: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP
People attend a speech by Huawei Chief Representative to the European Institutions Abraham Liu at Huawei Cybersecurity Center on May 21, 2019 in Brussels. - Washington last week imposed a ban on the sale or transfer of American technology to the firm which could impact hundreds of millions of Huawei phones and tablets around the world.

It would be an understatement to say tech giant Huawei has had a tough week.

After US President Donald Trump blacklisted the Chinese company on Friday citing risks to national security, Google quickly followed suit saying it would cut ties with Huawei in order to comply with Washington’s decision.

Placing Huawei on the so-called Entity List prevents US companies from trading with them, making it practically impossible for the second-largest phone manufacturer in the world to purchase goods made in the US.

On Monday, the roller coaster continued with the US Commerce Department announcing a 90-day reprieve for mobile phone companies and internet broadband providers to work with Huawei to “make other arrangements.”

The move allows Google to continue working with Huawei, as they have said they will do, and enable them to send software updates to Huawei phones which use its Android operating system through to August 19.

The temporary licence is welcome, but a three-month delay is unlikely to make much difference in the long run, dealing a potentially huge blow to the ambitious tech giant.

While the story has understandably been grabbing the headlines, there’s another branch of Huawei that has also been taking a hit in recent months, albeit more quietly.

Huawei’s collaboration with some of the world’s top universities has been central to their innovation and success. But that too is under threat as governments across the world urge education institutions to break ties with the company.

Warnings and bans

The US has been particularly cautious, in June calling for Huawei’s research partnerships and relationships with US universities to be investigated on national security grounds.

The intelligence community has warned for years of Huawei’s links to the Chinese government and the People’s Liberation Army. This finally came to a head when a bipartisan group of 26 lawmakers called on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to investigate the Huawei Innovation Research Programme and other programmes through which the Chinese companies partners with institutes of higher education across the US.

Trump upped the ante when in August he signed into law the National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA), banning universities from using telecommunications equipment, video recording services and networking components made by Huawei, and regulating research partnerships with China. Any organisations found in violation could lose their federal funding.

In April, the UK government urged British universities to review their work with Huawei over claims China is using its ties to “buy influence” and “subvert” academic institutions.

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Scare tactics are working

The scare tactics have had a resounding impact, with several big-name universities dropping their connection with Huawei.

The latest such institution is the University of Illinois who in April ended their research partnership.

They followed in the footsteps of MIT, Stanford University, University of California San Diego, and Berkley, all of whom cut ties with the company earlier in the year.

In January, Oxford University said it would no longer be taking funding from Huawei, quickly followed by Queen’s University Belfast.

Professor Anthony Glees, head of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham, told The Telegraph Huawei’s donations amounted to the UK “doing research on the cheap”.

Glees said companies like Huawei were using grants to “buy reputations and influence” and that donations needed to be “regulated and ethically sound, we need that assurance.”

Persevering despite the odds

Despite the seemingly Goliath-sized opposition, Huawei is not giving up on its academic pursuits.

In a January editorial for Nikkei Asia Review, embattled CFO of Huawei Technologies, Meng Wangzhou – who was arrested in Canada in December – reiterated Huawei’s commitment to collaboration.

In it, Meng calls Huawei’s Innovation Research Programme a “virtual coffee shop where we can exchange ideas with universities and research institutes around the world.”

While the programme has reportedly funded 1,200 projects – many of which have successfully been commercialised – Meng acknowledges the accusations and attempts to assuage any concerns.

“Contrary to what some have alleged, Huawei is not after our partners’ patents or research results,” she writes. “While we have noted Oxford University’s decision to decline further funding for new projects from Huawei, our goal is only to learn from researchers’ successes and failures.”

Meng makes the case for their investments, saying such collaborations are the only way to bridge the gap between pure research and lucrative commercialisation. Without Huawei, many innovations would simply remain in the laboratory.

But she is quick to point out that, while Huawei may facilitate the research, they do not own it.

“Huawei supports universities so that scientific research can be a lighthouse that illuminates a path toward the future. Scientists own the lighthouse, allowing them to commercialise the fruits of their research however they like.”