Industry Thought Leadership

Academic Freedom Drives Progress in Tech

August, 2018
Eric Xu
Rotating CEO


During a recent interview discussing Huawei’s views on academic freedom and cooperation with universities, I made a comment about a US congressman and a senator. My intention was not to attack them, and I’m concerned that the public may have been misled by the current news headlines.

I’m a PhD with experience in basic theory research, and my experience tells me that academic freedom and openness are of paramount importance to scientific research. That’s why I’ve decided to write this article, to provide a more comprehensive explanation of my views.

Academic freedom is a core value and basic aspect of modern universities. It is a precondition for a boom in academic research, scientific development, and an innovative workforce.

Academic freedom is also the cornerstone – and a basic right – of higher education institutions in the US. It is precisely because of this freedom from the interference of politics and other factors that the US can attract the world’s brightest minds to study and conduct research within its borders. Academic freedom is also a crucial factor behind the US’s continued status as a global technology leader, as well as its strength as a nation.

The National Science Foundation defines “basic research” as “activity aimed at acquiring new knowledge or understanding without specific, immediate commercial application or research.” Universities mainly work on basic research, while businesses focus on engineering and commercial application. It can take decades or even hundreds of years of R&D effort to close the huge gaps that may exist between basic theory and commercial application.

Collaboration between universities and businesses can effectively shorten this process. Nowadays, it is clearer than ever that science and technology are more closely integrated. The interplay of businesses, education institutions, and research institutions in basic research and innovation has become a major force behind the progress in science and technology.

US federal funding for higher education research has been falling steadily for the last decade. It now represents less than 50% of total university research funding in the US.

Corporate sponsorship has risen to close this gap. While the amount of funding Huawei has allocated for research in US universities is relatively modest, it has constituted welcome support for US university partners.

Huawei respects and supports academic freedom. Moving forward, we want to continue supporting academic research, in the form of funding, facilities, and lab equipment. Our collaboration with universities provides numerous opportunities for college and postgraduate students to gain training and hands-on experience. We believe our support is very important, while expecting no direct commercial return.

The research findings made possible through our joint university partnerships are shared openly across the world through dissertations and papers published by professors, PhDs, and postgraduate students alike. Like other corporate supporters of university research – including US-headquartered businesses that support Chinese universities – Huawei does not gain exclusive access to the resulting findings. Science has no national borders, and we hope the results from our university partnerships will ultimately benefit everyone in the world. Huawei never seeks to own their research results.

As a tech company, Huawei benefits from the general advancement of science and technology worldwide. But we remain competitive ourselves because we continuously invest in R&D. In 2017, Huawei invested US$13.8 billion in R&D, bringing our total contribution to global R&D in ICT over the last decade to more than US$60 billion. Huawei has been granted nearly 80,000 patents, including 10,000 patents in the US. Many of these are basic and essential patents. They represent our contributions to humanity, and also to the US’s information society.

It is a long, arduous journey before any basic research projects can deliver tangible benefits to society. This process requires close collaboration between universities and businesses. It requires the relentless effort of numerous scientists and engineers everywhere. These people deserve everyone’s respect – rather than groundless accusations – for their efforts and achievements.

Any open-minded politician should work to ensure academic freedom and drive progress in science and technology. They should do so with the same understanding, curiosity, and spirit of fact-finding endeavor displayed by the world’s leading scientists.