UC Board of Regents approves joint research institute in Shenzhen, China

Yinan Su/Staff

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On Thursday, the UC Board of Regents approved the participation of the Berkeley campus in creating a joint research institute in Shenzhen, China.

The institute will consist of three research centers for use by students from both UC Berkeley and Tsinghua University and will be funded by the Shenzhen municipal government and the Tsinghua Education Foundation (N.A.) Inc., or TEFNA. According to members of the UC Berkeley chancellor’s office, the joint venture would allow UC Berkeley doctoral students to have access to equipment and facilities not currently available to the Berkeley campus.

Shenzhen’s government is set to provide an initial $52 million to the institute — more than $21 million of which will go directly to equipment and new facilities — while TEFNA will provide $22 million over five years to help pay for doctoral students. UC Berkeley will have a 50 percent interest in the new research centers despite not being responsible for cash contributions to the project itself.

The Tsinghua-UC Berkeley Shenzhen Institute, or TBSI, would provide enhanced research opportunities for doctoral students in particular, according to UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, with relatively little risk to the University of California.

“I think this is an opportunity for us to determine what the upsides are (to collaborating with China) with very limited risk,” Dirks said at the meeting.

Despite ultimately approving the proposal, several of the regents expressed concern about the extent to which China would have control over actions taken by the TBSI, as well as how new technologies developed as a result of joint research would be divided up.

Major TBSI deals, such as setting the budget or developing the annual research plan, would require a supermajority vote from the institute’s governing board, which would be made up of four representatives from UC Berkeley, four from Tsinghua University and three from the Shenzhen government. Regent Hadi Makarechian, however, questioned the implications of the lack of majority control of day-to-day decisions.

“Who would decide what research directions to take or what ethical rights they should follow,” Makarechian said at the meeting, “because we hear all that stuff that in China, they do all this research that’s not ethical.”

Partnering with Tsinghua University would allow for the development of unique resources, such as smart buildings, which would collect information on energy use and other aspects of the building, according to Patrick Schlesinger, assistant vice chancellor for research administration and compliance.

Of the three research centers, one would focus on the environment and new energy, one on information technology and data science, and one on precision medicine and health care. According to Dirks, the TBSI would also enable multidisciplinary collaboration and allow UC Berkeley to explore opportunities for research sponsorship provided by Chinese corporations.

Now that the regents have approved the TBSI, it will have to be approved by the People’s Republic of China’s Ministry of Education. The campus anticipates that this approval will be forthcoming, according to the action item proposal.

Contact Trevor Greenan at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @trevor_greenan.