When I joined the U.S. Department of Energy in 2017, I was briefed about how pervasively the Chinese Communist Party had woven itself into the U.S. government’s research and innovation efforts. Traditionally, labs and academic institutions around the world and their researchers work on projects together. And periodically, foreign institutions, including in China, compensate Americans for their efforts. The Communist Party began to use these interactions to recruit people for their technology-appropriation programs.
I should have known. Before I joined the department, I was in the nuclear industry in the private sector, and served on an Energy Department advisory board. Chinese state entities often invited me to attend nuclear conferences and tour the country—all expenses paid. I always said no, because I was too busy. In retrospect, I certainly am glad I was. The invitations have resumed since I left the government, and my answer is a well-informed no.
I learned that people working at the Energy Department’s National Laboratories had significant engagements with China. Some were paid by one of the many Chinese Communist Party Thousand Talents Plans while concurrently working at sensitive U.S. government labs. These agreements often required technology transfer as well as support for recruiting more members to the TTPs. This was also happening at other agencies, and it was recently disclosed that these include nonscience and international institutions such as the Federal Reserve and the Inter-American Development Bank.
The weakness in the Energy Department’s compliance rules was that there were no disclosure or conflict-of-interest policies regarding foreign engagement or research and technologies other than those involving strategic weapons. There were no rules about research in quantum computing and artificial intelligence, which will have a large economic impact and defense applications.
During my tenure, the department developed and rolled out four orders to restrict China’s recruiting and appropriation of innovation. First, mandate disclosure and develop conflict-of-interest policies for department and national-lab employees regarding countries of risk (China, Russia, Iran and North Korea), including a ban on TTP membership. Second, develop a “technology risk matrix,” a map detailing which technologies we would collaborate on with those countries, and which we wouldn’t. Third, increase oversight on interactions by any program or employee with those countries. Fourth, require that any researcher supported by a department grant (including at U.S. universities) not be a member of a TTP.
A recent report about vanadium battery technology appropriated last year from Energy Department efforts shows there are still significant gaps, but these policies were a good start.
Mr. Dabbar served as undersecretary of energy for science, 2017-21.