Intellectual property theft and economic espionage by foreign governments have become major problems at US colleges and universities. That’s why federal law requires colleges to report foreign-sourced gifts and contracts worth at least $ 250,000 in a calendar year. The Education Department in 2019 launched an investigation into foreign funding at several prominent American institutions of higher learning. Among the targets was Texas A&M, a network of 11 universities and eight state agencies with a $ 7.2 billion annual budget.
Texas A&M has reported receiving more than $ 700 million from foreign countries between 1995 and 2022, with the largest amounts coming from Qatar and China. The Education Department closed its investigation in January 2021, and Texas A&M appeared to be in compliance with federal requirements, even claiming to have overreported the amount of foreign funds it received by more than $ 2 million. But my analysis of publicly available documents and data reveals that Texas A&M continues not to report more than $ 100 million in research funds originating in Russia and Qatar.
These unreported funds have paid for research at the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station, or TEES. Headquartered in College Station, TEES specifically focuses on the commercialization of engineering and technology research on cybersecurity, nuclear nonproliferation and artificial intelligence. Under Texas’ education law, TEES “is a part of The Texas A&M University System under the management and control of the board of regents of The Texas A&M University System.”
Russian entities have funded projects at TEES on hydrocarbon reservoir modeling. Qatar-backed research has been wider in scope, generally focusing on advancing technical capabilities for the small Gulf state. Projects have ranged from cybersecurity enhancements to medical advancements to better oil-recovery practices.
According to the Education Department’s College Foreign Gift Reporting database, Texas A&M has never received any funding from Russian entities. But TEES and Russian university Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, or Skoltech, crafted a deal worth roughly $ 4 million (211,635,000 Russian rubles) in November 2014, only months after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine.
This wasn’t the only deal with Skoltech at the time: Petroleum engineering professor John Killough secured an $ 8.7 million grant with Skoltech in 2013. Both deals were eventually canceled — in 2016 and 2015, respectively — and Mr. Killough said in an email that he received “somewhat less than” $ 3.2 million for the 2013 grant owing to the “devaluation of the ruble” and premature cancellation because of “sanctions for the Crimean invasion.”
Skoltech was founded in 2011 through a partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In February 2022, MIT cut ties with Skoltech in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
I also investigated eight contracts TEES signed with the Qatar National Research Fund between 2010 and 2019. These deals collectively were worth close to $ 100 million. The Research Fund is backed by the Qatari government and requires all grant proposals to address how the research to be funded will benefit the energy-rich Gulf state. Qatar became the largest foreign donor to American universities in recent years even as these schools have come under fire for working with a country that supports censorship and subjects migrant laborers to poor working conditions.
In a June 2019 letter to Texas A&M, the Department of Education explained that its guidelines for Section 117 of the Higher Education Act require the university to report all funds from “affiliated foundations and non-profit organizations” that “operate substantially for the benefit or under the auspices of Texas A&M University. ”
But TEES spokeswoman Lisa Akin told me via email that TEES is “not a university or college” and is, therefore, exempt from these reporting requirements. According to Ms. Akin, TEES is “not an intermediary and does not act on behalf of Texas A&M University.”
This isn’t true, for three reasons.
First, Texas A&M and its affiliated branch campuses often benefit from these contracts. Of the 110 foreign-funded TEES research projects I looked at, 106 listed Texas A&M professors or researchers as principal investigators. Some professors even listed these projects on their résumés to demonstrate the funds they’ve attracted to Texas A&M, not TEES. Projects sometimes specify that the research will use Texas A&M facilities. One project under the 2014 Skoltech agreement, “High Performance Simulation in Conventional Onshore Reservoirs,” clearly states that it is “planned research at Texas A&M University.” Research agreements with the Qatar National Research Fund also list multiple projects in which Texas A&M or one of its branch campuses are sub-awardees. These endeavors benefit the university and use Texas A&M facilities and personnel.
Second, the Qatar National Research Fund would never have approved many of these projects if Texas A&M didn’t have a campus in Qatar, which it does. The Research Fund only accepts proposals from entities located in Qatar. While TEES now has a “division” in the country, it is on the grounds of Texas A&M University-Qatar.
Third, Texas A&M officials are involved with these contracts. Dimitris Lagoudas, a Texas A&M professor of aerospace engineering who is affiliated with TEES, was listed as an “authorized representative” in the 2014 Skoltech agreement under the title of “Texas A&M Associate Vice Chancellor for Research.” Even though TEES refuses to acknowledge that it often acts on behalf of Texas A&M, a $ 4.7 million contract with the Qatar National Research Fund in 2015 clearly states that the research would be conducted “under the auspices of Texas A&M University at Qatar Research Program.”
César O. Malavé, dean of Texas A&M-Qatar, signed a contract on behalf of TEES with the Qatar National Research Fund as recently as November 2019 — and marked it with an official Texas A&M seal. Texas A&M officials sometimes signed two separate grant agreements with the Qatar National Research Fund on the same day: one ostensibly for the university and the other ostensibly for TEES. The university agreements were reported to the Education Department. The TEES agreements were not, though they were typically more lucrative.
The evidence indicates that TEES and Texas A&M are essentially the same entity, at least for the purposes of Section 117 reporting. And the Qatari funds may only scratch the surface of foreign money Texas A&M has received but not reported. TEES has or has had partnerships with entities in India, Saudi Arabia and Japan. There are seven other Texas A&M state agencies that should also be required to report foreign funds. If they don’t, the Education Department should reopen its investigation into Texas A&M.
Foreign funding disclosure is necessary to protect US national security and to promote transparency, especially in security-relevant research areas like those at TEES. Americans should know if foreign countries — and which ones — are vying for influence at top US research institutions. The Biden administration’s lax enforcement of Section 117 continues to send a message to universities that foreign funding disclosure doesn’t matter.
Ms. Arnold is a senior research associate at the National Association of Scholars.
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