The Biden administration is using taxpayer cash to fund a University of Virginia climate change partnership with a Chinese Communist Party-controlled school that conducts research for China’s military.
President Joe Biden’s National Science Foundation last year awarded more than $130,000 to the University of Virginia to conduct climate change research with Beijing-based Tsinghua University, federal spending disclosures show. Tsinghua University, which counts Chinese president Xi Jinping among its alumni, will work with University of Virginia researchers to chart the global “transition to a low-carbon economy,” according to the grant description.
Tsinghua University is funded by China’s Ministry of Education and maintains a “CCP Committee” that keeps the school “in accordance with President Xi’s hopes.” It also holds “secret-level security credentials” for classified military research, trains students for China’s nuclear weapons program, and has allegedly carried out cyberattacks for the Chinese government, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. It is also one of several Chinese universities under the supervision of the communist nation’s State Administration of Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense, a CCP agency that works to deepen university involvement in the defense sector.
The National Science Foundation’s decision to fund the partnership with Tsinghua calls into question the foundation’s vetting process as it enjoys a record-high budget. The bipartisan CHIPS Act, which Biden said would help “counter China,” authorized $80 billion in funding for the National Science Foundation to invest in research and development. But in the case of its University of Virginia grant, the foundation found working with the Chinese on climate change “worthy of support.”
For American Foreign Policy Council fellow Michael Sobolik, the foundation’s decision to use “taxpayer money to facilitate research cooperation with a People’s Liberation Army-affiliated university” is “questionable at best.”
“We’ve seen time and again how the CCP leverages people-to-people ties to further its malign influence within the United States,” Sobolik told the Washington Free Beacon. “When you’re in the midst of a cold war, you can’t play both sides of the ledger. The sooner we accept that reality, the better.”
The National Science Foundation downplayed Tsinghua’s role in the project, with research security strategy and policy chief Rebecca Keiser saying the Chinese school’s involvement stems from “researcher-to-researcher collaboration.”
The foundation “has instituted a first-in-government analytics process to identify research security concerns and ensure transparency when assessing proposals and awards to ensure that any international collaboration provides mutual benefit,” Keiser said in a statement. “In any international research collaboration, [the National Science Foundation] only funds the U.S. side.”
The grant, which started in October and runs through 2026, funds University of Virginia research into “the transition to a low-carbon economy.” Tsinghua and a second Chinese partner, the China University of Petroleum-Beijing, will conduct similar research in China, the results of which “will be used to develop a U.S.-Chinese collaborative course on climate leadership skills.” That collaboration, the grant says, “will lead to better strategies for lowering emissions in the United States that are complementary to those in China.” China is by far the biggest polluter in the world—in 2019, it emitted more greenhouse gases than all developed nations combined.
This is not the first time the University of Virginia has partnered with Tsinghua. The two schools are exchange partners, and the University of Virginia’s engineering department in 2017 developed a “teaching collaboration” with Tsinghua that saw students from both schools pair up for homework assignments. That project, however, does not appear to have received federal money. Beyond the October grant, the National Science Foundation has only funded projects linked to Tsinghua on two other occasions—once under Biden last June and once under former president Barack Obama in April 2011. Both of those grants, which went to Boston University and Drexel University, respectively, funded academic workshops that included participants from Tsinghua.
A University of Virginia spokesman defended the university’s work with Tsinghua, arguing that because the project “does not involve critical technologies or military applications,” it does not compromise U.S. national security interests.
“An important part of researching global challenges like climate change is working with institutions around the world to compare the effects of a warming climate and the efficacy of different proposed solutions,” university spokesman Brian Coy said. “As part of those efforts, we take seriously our responsibility to operate within all U.S. laws and regulations regarding the protection of intellectual property and U.S. national security interests.”
“Our university collaborates closely and transparently with federal regulatory and law enforcement partners in order to ensure our collaborative research efforts contribute to human understanding of global challenges without compromising our interests as a nation,” Coy said.
The university’s partnership with Tsinghua could attract scrutiny from Republican Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin. “Since being elected, the governor has taken steps to protect Virginians from the malign influence of the Chinese Communist Party,” Youngkin spokesman Christian Martinez told the Free Beacon. “Through his TikTok ban on all state devices and networks, prohibiting foreign adversaries, including China, from acquiring the commonwealth’s agricultural land, requesting Fairfax County schools cut ties with CCP-linked entities, and preventing a Trojan horse deal for a CCP-linked battery manufacturer to produce electric vehicle batteries propped up by U.S. tax incentives, the governor has made it clear that there is no room in Virginia for the Chinese Communist Party.”
National Science Foundation director Sethuraman Panchanathan, who serves at the pleasure of the president, in 2014 was put on the foundation’s National Science Board by Obama. Then-president Donald Trump in June 2020 went on to elevate Panchanathan to foundation director. Biden has appointed 10 of the National Science Board’s 24 members.
While the National Science Foundation’s grant did not send federal money directly to Tsinghua, the Chinese university has received money from American actors in the past. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—one of America’s largest liberal nonprofits—gave Tsinghua more than $1.5 million in 2021, the Free Beacon reported in January.
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