Amid tensions with China, US emphasizes research security rules
When Chuan He was first invited to start up a lab at Peking University in 2008, the first thing he did was notify his US employer—he’s a chemistry professor at the University of Chicago—of his plans. He’s been working part-time in China ever since, making sure he follows the rules so everyone knows about his international collaborations.
While He has collaborators all over the world, in recent years he’s felt special scrutiny of his work in China. The National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and other US agencies have emphasized disclosure requirements for scientists with foreign contacts in conjunction with rising concerns about intellectual property theft and fraud.
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has brought together staff from US federal science, foreign affairs, and national security agencies to form a Joint Committee on the Research Environment. According to the office’s Sept. 16 letter to the US research community, that committee is looking at threats to research security and what to do about them, focusing on four areas:
▶ Coordinating outreach and engagement with the community to explain the scope of the problem, including presenting “examples in which our research enterprise was exploited or compromised”
▶ Establishing and coordinating disclosure requirements to ensure compliance with federal laws and policies
▶ Developing best practices for academic research institutions in coordination with universities, societies, and other organizations
▶ Developing methods for identifying, assessing, and managing risk in US research
Source: White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Cases of such misconduct are rare but have nonetheless drawn the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Congress, and the White House. “Over the past several years, some nations have exhibited increasingly sophisticated efforts to exploit, influence, and undermine our research activities and environments,” says a Sept. 16 open letter to the US research community from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
But scientists and universities are concerned that federal action to address research security concerns, which are widely perceived to be about China, will damage US science.
“Nobody says that it targets the Chinese, but it’s pretty clear” it does, He says. “The image we project to the rest of the world, in particular China, is we don’t want you. That will hurt our recruitment of graduate students and postdocs. That will be a major problem for biomedical research here in this country,” he says.
The NIH first learned about concerns regarding China in June 2016, when the FBI approached the agency about “significant breaches in peer review confidentiality,” says Michael Lauer, deputy director for extramural research at the NIH.
The FBI initially said some grant reviewers were sharing applications with people in China. The allegations of impropriety quickly expanded to scientists working for China without disclosing that work to their university or to the NIH, Lauer says. A particular problem is the country’s Thousand Talents program, which is designed to connect China with scientists in Western countries, he says.
In August 2018, NIH director Francis Collins published a notice outlining the agency’s concerns. The NIH then sent letters to 65 universities notifying them of breaches of NIH rules by over 150 scientists, who Lauer says are mostly—but not all—of Chinese ethnicity. A few specific cases have come into public view since, including a University of Kansas chemist charged with fraud for receiving a salary from US agencies while also being paid by a Chinese university.
“A number of the university officials that we have spoken with have been highly appreciative” of the NIH letting them know about scientists who have broken agency rules, Lauer says.
Lauer points out that it is fraud if scientists are being paid twice—by the US and China, for example—for the same work or the same research time. Secretly patenting US-funded work or starting a business in China based on work funded by the US government can also create financial conflicts of interest for researchers.
“We’re about openness, collaboration, transparency, and reciprocity,” Lauer says. “Getting a job on the side without telling your employer about it? That’s not collaboration; that’s stealth. That’s deception. Quite frankly, it’s theft.”
In July 2019, the NIH issued another notice that it says clarifies reporting requirements for all foreign interactions. “There’s actually nothing new in policy there. This has been accepted practice for a long time,” Lauer says.
But that’s not how many administrators and scientists see it. Fred Cate, vice president for research at Indiana University, says the NIH’s “clarifications” are a clear change from the past 20 years of academic research practice. In particular, the July guidance says scientists must disclose all foreign support, including “all resources made available to a researcher in support of and/or related to all of their research endeavors, regardless of whether or not they have monetary value and regardless of whether they are based at the institution the researcher identifies for the current grant” (emphasis in original).
For example, scientists now must tell the NIH about any overseas trip that is partially funded by a foreign agency, says Patrick Casey, senior vice-dean of research with the Duke–National University of Singapore Medical School. “These are things that happen all the time,” he says. All his colleagues regularly travel internationally, and “sometimes your host is paying part of the bill.”
Many times problems come about when an individual scientist rather than an institution manages an international relationship, Casey says. That’s why the Duke-NUS program has an office dedicated to monitoring US research agency policies and helping staff follow them. “It really comes down to making sure that everyone that’s involved is aware of what you’re doing,” he says. “Disclose, disclose, disclose.”
Thomas Rosenbaum, president of the California Institute of Technology, worries that changing policies because a handful of scientists might have hidden their Chinese ties could end up tainting thousands of other scientists who are trying to follow the rules. So far, the NIH has asked universities to look into around 150 cases. By contrast, the NIH awarded just over 44,000 research grants in 2017.
“The question for us is should you make policy on the basis of outliers?” Rosenbaum asks. “You can do a lot of harm to yourself with overreaction.”
Universities already run massive operations to try to prevent and catch fraud and theft, IU’s Cate points out, so it’s not clear what else the agencies are trying to prevent. If US agencies can be clearer about their goals, “we can work in a more cooperative way,” Cate says.
Universities also regularly deal with intellectual property and conflict-of-interest issues, but some universities might need to put stronger structures in place, says Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU). The APLU and the Association of American Universities issued recommendations earlier this year for how campuses should address the threat from undue foreign influence on campus.
University leadership has told McPherson “this is a problem that we have to deal with,” he says.
In its Sept. 16 letter, the federal government’s Office of Science and Technology Policy outlined its efforts to boost research security. The office plans a series of meetings at academic research institutions in the next few months to talk about these issues.
From what he has heard from other discussions with government leaders, Rosenbaum is worried. Some of the ideas he’s heard are “draconian,” he says, and “would hinder the level of research that we could do and the kind of education we can provide.”
One proposal that concerns him would prohibit Chinese students from working on particular research topics, even if they are fully publishable and not classified. Another is restricting information in a way that is outside traditional designations of classified or unclassified.
The worst outcome, however, would be a lack of clarity so scientists don’t know whether they are following the rules, Rosenbaum says.
Caltech takes federal agencies’ concerns seriously, Rosenbaum says. “But my own conclusion is that there’s really no alternative to out-innovating and outcompeting people,” he says. “You can’t just drop a curtain or put a box around yourself and expect that you will, in fact, stay at the forefront.”
In many ways, the focus on reforming university research security might be misplaced, Cate says. “Why would you invest money stealing from universities? We tend to make everything public because we’re required to by law,” he says.
“There’s a certain arrogance about the whole debate because it suggests we are ahead of the Chinese in everything,” Cate adds. “We are certainly ahead of the Chinese in some things, but there are many scientific areas where we’re not ahead.”
University administrators also fear that heavy-handed action will yield long-term damage to the US scientific research ecosystem. Rosenbaum sent a letter to his staff earlier this year reiterating the importance of international research and connections; at Caltech, 45% of faculty are immigrants. If the US cements a reputation as an unwelcoming environment, “it is very hard to turn that around,” Rosenbaum says. “It could have a profound, long-lasting effect.”
As for the University of Chicago’s He, he plans to renew his collaboration with Peking University despite the extra scrutiny. He just hopes the rules are fair. “The entire tide, it turned a bit too sharp,” he says. “I think often, just like in science, there are extreme opinions, and often the truth lies in between.”