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Research Integrity

New restrictions on foreign scientists or fundamental research not needed, defense panel says

Broader disclosure requirements and education efforts can protect US science from foreign influence

by Andrea Widener
December 11, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 48

Maintaining an open research environment is more important than imposing restrictions to curb foreign influence of US science, a new report by an influential defense advisory panel says.

Instead the group, Jason, recommends strengthening requirements that scientists disclose foreign commitments and affiliations, while maintaining the current system to narrowly classify sensitive research to prevent dissemination.

Main themes of the Jason research security study

• The value of, and need for, foreign scientific talent in the United States

• The significant negative impacts of placing new restrictions on access to fundamental research

• The need to extend our notion of research integrity to include disclosures of commitments and potential conflicts of interest

• The need for a common understanding between academia and US government agencies about how to best protect US interests in fundamental research while maintaining openness and successfully competing in the global marketplace for science talent

Source: “Fundamental Research Security,” JSR-19-2I, Jason.

“The benefits of openness in research and of the inclusion of talented foreign researchers dictate against measures that would wall off particular areas of fundamental research,” says the report from Jason, an independent advisory panel that provides advice to the government, primarily on defense issues.

Many people, including members of Congress and leaders of intelligence agencies, have called for tighter restrictions on immigration and access to research to protect US science from foreign influence, especially from the Chinese government. In response, the National Science Foundation approached Jason in the summer of 2019 for advice on how to balance that national security threat with the agency’s commitment to open research. “We have been trying very hard to understand what the risks are in this area that is supposed to be open,” says Rebecca Keiser, head of NSF’s Office of International Science.

For this report, Jason members—led by a biologist, a statistician, and a physicist—talked with representatives of intelligence and law enforcement agencies, as well as academics and leaders in federal science agencies.

They concluded there are widespread issues of foreign influence that threaten the US research enterprise. Those include a lack of transparency, reciprocity in collaborations, and reporting of foreign commitments or conflicts of interest. However, “the scale and scope of the problem remain poorly defined,” the report says. Academic researchers and federal agencies don’t fully understand the threat, while intelligence and law enforcement agencies don’t understand the tenets of fundamental research.

Overall, the Jason team determined that the threats do not justify limiting foreign scientists’ participation in fundamental research, either through curbing immigration or through changing classification rules. Instead, Jason recommends expanding the scope of traditional research integrity rules to include disclosure of foreign funding and commitments, plus any conflicts of interest posed by foreign connections. Any violations would then be investigated by the same authorities who police other research integrity violations, often an investigator’s own university.

Academics and federal agencies need more education on the scope of the foreign influence problem, including tools to help them better identify potentially risky research or collaborations, the report says. Even individual investigators should be able to have conversations with their research groups about appropriate ways and times to share research finding.

The NSF and other agencies are already working to make reporting requirements clear and consistent across agencies and to educate scientists about the threat, Keiser says. Jason says that will foreign scientists play an important part in ensuring openness and transparency in science. “International researchers in the United States are partners in our research enterprise, and, consequently, in the effort to strengthen research integrity nationally and globally.”

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