For the past five years, a group of university chancellors and presidents from major research institutions around the country have met with FBI agents and representatives for the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board (NSHEAB).
Details about the discussions that take place are, for security purposes, not openly available, but the topics range in issues related to higher education research and national security.
This year, Chancellor Linda Katehi will join this select group that will provide further discussions and relations between UC Davis and the FBI’s Sacramento office.
“It was an honor for me and for UC Davis to be invited to serve on this board,” Katehi said. “My participation allows me to visit with like-minded chancellors and presidents of major research institutions, to explore and share best practices that ensure our researchers and our research remain safe and unimpeded.”
As a member of the NSHEAB, Katehi will help to foster a growing relationship between higher institutions of learning and the FBI. Special Agent Drew Parenti of the Sacramento FBI said this relationship is necessary for national security reasons.
“The FBI’s partnership with higher education is a key component in our strategy of staying ahead of national security threats from our foreign adversaries,” Parenti said. “The NSHEAB promotes that relationship and we are very pleased that Chancellor Katehi has accepted an appointment to serve on the board.”
The NSHEAB was created in 2005 by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller in an effort to address ways in which billions of dollars of research conducted by universities do not become vulnerable to exploitation by other countries, stated a 2009 FBI press release.
Since then, presidents and chancellors from Pennsylvania State University, Carnegie Mellon University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, UCLA, Washington University, Iowa State University and now UC Davis have been appointed members by the FBI.
Mitchel Benson, UC Davis assistant vice chancellor for university communications, said even with this relationship, the universities involved and the FBI will remain separate institutions each with their own role.
“It doesn’t certify the FBI as research experts and does not certify UC Davis as federal agents of the government,” Benson said. In a 2006 op-ed, Pennsylvania State president and NSHEAB chair Graham Spanier wrote that NSHEAB will aid the related concerns of academic institutions and the FBI through discussions that include international students and scholars, the dissemination of research, expert policy and security information networks, creating a cross fertilization of ideas.
This cross-fertilization will help research institutions with new strategies in dealing with areas in which large universities could be at risk.
This includes animal rights terrorists, theft in research and criminal activity in which people might provide, unknowingly or not, sensitive information to other countries, Benson said.
An example of this involved a UC Davis graduate student attempting to illegally send thermal imaging cameras to China in 2008, according to a Oct. 12 UC Davis Dateline report.
As a research institution, UC Davis is making a name for itself in the growing amount of research conducted every year. The university received over $679 million in research for the 2009-2010 fiscal year, more than double the amount from 10 years ago.
“Katehi is making the goal to be $1 billion [in coming years],” Benson said.
Former Vice Chancellor for Research Barry Klien clarified that with all the research done, there is no classified information.
“One of our principles is that we do not do classified research,” he said.
However, along with this principle of academic freedom, institutions like UC Davis can become more vulnerable to the type of attacks that the FBI are concerned about, especially in research that can prove detrimental to national security.
In one recent case, a professor at the University of Tennessee allowed foreign graduate students access to restricted data and took lab books with him on an overseas trip while on a research project funded by the Air Force. He was sentenced to four years in prison, according to the same UC Davis Dateline report.
“Walk a tightrope doing fundamental research and providing defense to this country,” Klien said. “We want to optimize the contributions made by doing valuable research and minimize the compromises.”
One particularly vulnerable area is UC Davis’s California Primate Research Center, where research is conducted on primates to find cures for a range of diseases from asthma, cancer and HIV. “They are doing research to find cures and prevent deaths. But I also believe that some people don’t agree with [that research],” Benson said.
The university’s collaboration with the FBI will allow researchers and the FBI to learn from each other the best way to protect information.
“It’s important for us to learn from the FBI about the smartest, safest protocols to follow as we do our work, and it is equally important that the FBI has a solid understanding of matters of academic freedom and collaboration with foreign researchers,” Katehi said.
The FBI is currently planning presentations to the campus on various topics including animal rights terrorists and intellectual property.
JESSY WEI can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.