Exclusive: Scientists at top British universities worked with Chinese nuclear weapons researchers

Juliet Samuel
·8 min read
Cambridge University (King's College Chapel) Top View - Getty Images
Cambridge University (King's College Chapel) Top View - Getty Images

Scientists at Britain’s leading universities – including Cambridge, Edinburgh and Manchester – have worked on a string of projects with researchers at China’s nuclear weapons research institution, The Telegraph can reveal.

The Telegraph found that British academics have published dozens of papers alongside scientists employed by a Chinese institution that is on a US sanctions list due to its research into developing Beijing’s nuclear arsenal.

Several also appear to have worked for the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics (CAEP) at the same time as holding posts at British universities.

The joint UK-China projects show how taxpayers could be inadvertently funding research at China’s nuclear weapons programme through science funding grants and use of Britain’s cutting edge government-funded science facilities, including the UK’s national supercomputer, ARCHER, and a £260 million particle accelerator called Diamond Light Source.

The revelations have been described as a “national scandal” and prompted calls for urgent Government and university action to crack down on risky partnerships.

Tom Tugendhat, chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, described the links as “extraordinary”, adding: “Some universities’ apparent lack of curiosity about their partners leaves them exposed to accusations of collusion with hostile states, violating human rights, and undermining the security of the UK.

“Clearly they need to realise their responsibility but the Government also has an essential role in making sure they’re aware of the consequences arising from these partnerships.”

The Security Services have repeatedly raised concerns over relationships between UK universities and China and almost 200 British academics are understood to be under investigation for unwittingly helping the Chinese build weapons of mass destruction.

National security

In response to the findings, a Government spokesman said that they “will not accept collaborations which compromise our national security and… continue to work with the sector to identify and mitigate the risks of interference".

In total, The Telegraph found that scientists at 33 UK universities, including 18 in the prestigious Russell Group including Queen Mary University London (QMUL) and Liverpool, have conducted research in cooperation with CAEP or its subsidiaries.

The institutions are supervised by China’s Central Military Council and are on US sanctions lists because they have been tasked with developing Beijing’s nuclear weapons programmes and with finding new ways to put science to military use.

Senior British scientists, including former Cambridge Professor Simon Redfern and Dr Gilberto Teobaldi, a group leader at a Government-run laboratory, have been simultaneously affiliated with both UK institutions and a subsidiary of CAEP. Both have received taxpayer funding for their work.

Edinburgh, QMUL and Cambridge researchers have all had links to a “shock wave and detonation physics” defence laboratory at CAEP.

All the universities involved have insisted that the research was compliant with the Government's legislation, regulations and guidance and their partnerships were subject to stringent checks on security, ethics governance, and intellectual property protection. None of the research had any military use, they said in statements.

China's Silicon Valley

As a line on a CV, it sounds straightforward enough: the Beijing Computational Science Research Center (CSRC).

Housed in a glass, oval building in Z Park, known as 'China’s Silicon Valley', the centre has its own gym and lecture halls, houses part of a major supercomputer, and boasts of its many foreign university partnerships.

It is easy to see why Gilberto Teobaldi might happily take up an offer to become an “associate member”.

But this shiny office is more than a hub for computer geeks. It is in fact run by China’s sole developer of nuclear weapons, CAEP, an institution tasked with advanced weapons research and supervised by China’s Central Military Council.

Beijing Computational Science Research Center - CSRC, - News Scans
Beijing Computational Science Research Center - CSRC, - News Scans

The centre tends not to play up its military links in its recruitment of foreign scientists.

Dr Teobaldi became an “associate member” in 2016. Since then, he has worked with its scientists and published at least seven scientific papers listing him as one of its researchers while also being employed by Liverpool University. In 2018, he also became a “group leader” in a British government laboratory.

'An extremely bad idea to cooperate'

Research by The Telegraph reveals that Dr Teobaldi is just one of many UK scientists who have forged links with China’s nuclear weapons laboratory. Scientists working at the CAEP and its subsidiaries have published dozens of papers with British scientists, many of which make use of British government grants or facilities.

The UK scientists involved in these projects argue that they are purely focused on basic science or its civilian applications, but others argue the line is not always so clear cut.

“These things are inextricably intertwined and extremely hard to disentangle,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert at the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury College in the US.

Charles Parton, a former Foreign Office official and China expert, said: “It is an extremely bad idea to cooperate with an institute that develops nuclear weapons.”

The work done by Dr Teobaldi’s group at the UK Government-run Rutherford Appleton Laboratory includes research on nuclear and solar energy. As a senior UK scientist, Dr Teobaldi’s work has benefited from taxpayer-funded grants totalling more than £600,000 and his papers have made repeated use of the ARCHER supercomputer.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council, which runs the lab, say that they “support international collaborations that are legitimate, lawful and responsible, and operate within the framework set out by government”.

The research “relates to fundamental science using theoretical models to find sustainable materials for civil applications”, a spokesman said, adding that Dr Teobaldi was not involved in the work on nuclear energy carried out by a member of his team.

Dr Teobaldi is listed as affiliated with the CSRC on several papers published in 2020, but the STFC say his links with the centre ended in late 2018, just months after he joined the UK lab.

Liverpool University, where Dr Teobaldi is now an honorary research fellow, says it has “a robust set of policies and procedures in place in relation to due diligence, ethics governance, and IP protection”.

'Thousand talents' linked to IP theft

Another senior UK scientist with links to the CAEP is Prof Simon Redfern, formerly head of the Earth Science department at Cambridge University, and now working in Singapore. Prof Redfern studies how minerals behave in extreme environments such as volcanoes and, as a hobby, monitors earthquakes on his phone.

His work has benefited from substantial government funding and in 2016, while serving on two UK government science bodies, Prof Redfern took up a role as a visiting professor at a subsidiary of the CAEP known as “HPSTAR”.

Prof Redfern's work includes use of the British Diamond Light Source, but a spokesman for the facility has insisted that it is only used for "peaceful and humane purposes" and strict checks are in place for all research, which is published openly in scientific journals.

HPSTAR was set up in 2014 to recruit foreign talent and since joining, Prof Redfern has published 15 papers with its scientists. He has also accepted an award from China’s “Thousand Talents” plan, a Chinese programme that has been linked to intellectual property theft in other countries, whose participants are restricted from US federal funding.

HPSTAR, like its parent institution, is named on a US sanctions list because of the risk of its research aiding the Chinese military.

Meanwhile, Cambridge has itself hosted at least three researchers from the CAEP since 2014, including one scholar from the CAEP defence laboratory on “shock wave and detonation physics”. The latest is listed on papers as being simultaneously affiliated with HPSTAR.

The visiting academics would have had their visas checked by the Home Office.

Cambridge University said: “We would welcome greater support from government to navigate an evolving geopolitical landscape that seeks to balance trade relations with national security considerations.

'Major national scandal'

The links raise urgent questions about whether the UK’s regime for regulating research partnerships and visiting scholars is fit for purpose. Prof Lewis at Middlebury argues Western scientists should be able to work even with an institution like the CAEP if the project is not directly related to defence.

However, despite some recent updates to UK guidelines, there are widespread concerns that the vetting system is far behind that of the US. “If you’ve got all the systems in place... you might be in a position to say, in this particular case it’s acceptable to cooperate,” said Mr Parton. But for the UK regime, he added, “there is a long way to go”.

Radomir Tylecote, co-author of a report on Sino-British research links for Civitas, called The Telegraph’s findings “a major national scandal” and said the Government should urgently introduce a US-style “entity list” of sanctioned foreign organisations.

Manchester University, which has previously run joint laboratories with two Chinese defence conglomerates, also appears to have extensive links with the CAEP.

Its researchers have published 14 papers in collaboration with CAEP scientists since 2015, many of them involving senior Manchester professor Qingming Li. Prof Li studies explosions and projectiles, authoring papers that analyse in detail the way concrete cracks under impact, and is on the editorial board of the Journal of Defence Technology.

While holding a senior role at Manchester and working on UK-government-funded projects, he is also an “adjunct professor” at a known defence laboratory on “explosion science and technology” at Beijing Institute of Technology.

A Manchester University spokesman said that they have strict policies in place to ensure research is not used beyond its intended purpose and said it operated in accordance with government guidelines.