Scientists Seek Clarity Amid US Security Push

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Publication date: 
8 November 2019
Number: 
97

U.S. science agencies are leaning on disclosure requirements to identify individuals with problematic ties to foreign governments, but uncertainty remains about the scope of the policies and the potential for follow-on actions, especially as they relate to collaborations with China.

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JCORE Research Security Subcommittee meeting

A photo from a meeting of the Research Security Subcommittee of the White House’s Joint Committee on the Research Environment.

(Image credit – OSTP)

With federal science agencies looking to better secure the U.S. research system against exploitation by China and other rival governments, scientists are seeking clarity about where that process is headed.

Agency officials stress they are targeting a relatively small number of individuals acting in bad faith and that they are working closely with research institutions to craft better safeguards. However, their actions have created confusion within the scientific community about what policies are in place and what changes are on the table.

Moreover, as the number of firings and arrests associated with the security push rises, so too have allegations that Chinese and Chinese American scientists are being subjected to discrimination.

FBI cracking down on nondisclosure

In their efforts to identify bad actors, agencies are working to better enforce policies requiring that grantees disclose all significant sources of support they receive from foreign institutions.

A primary driver of the crackdown on nondisclosure is the FBI's concerns that talent recruitment programs sponsored by the Chinese government serve as a conduit for the inappropriate transfer of intellectual property and knowhow. Such programs provide funds for both Chinese and non-Chinese nationals to set up labs in China on a full or part-time basis. Increasingly, the FBI has begun to arrest individuals for undisclosed ties to these programs, even in instances where there is no associated accusation of espionage or theft.

In one of the latest in a series of such cases, the Department of Justice indicted University of Kansas chemistry professor Feng Tao on Aug. 21 for wire and program fraud, alleging he was employed by a Chinese university through a talent recruitment program and hid that arrangement from the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy, which were funding his research. A DOJ official referred to the dual employment as representing a “conflict of commitment,” a term science agencies have used to describe situations in which grantees have overcommitted their time to projects funded by different entities.

In concert with law enforcement efforts, the National Institutes of Health has launched a sweeping investigation of undisclosed commitments and other integrity breaches, such as individuals sharing copies of confidential grant applications. The agency is currently investigating about 180 researchers, most of whom are Chinese or of Chinese descent. In a major article on NIH’s efforts, the New York Times reported this week that “roughly a dozen” researchers are known to have resigned or been fired as a result.

Some of the individuals whose cases are public have protested their treatment, generally arguing they are victims of spurious allegations or misunderstandings.

However, Mike Lauer, NIH’s deputy director for extramural research, told FYI last month that a large fraction of the investigations conducted so far have revealed “egregious” policy violations. While stressing the total number of cases is relatively small, Lauer said NIH has reason to believe they are part of a “systematic” effort to exploit the U.S. research system.

“We are seeing over and over again that substantive employment arrangements or substantive Chinese grants don't get reported to American employers,” he said. “Also, we've seen a number of cases in which scientists were asked by their American employers what's going on and have outright lied.”

He noted that some researchers did not disclose support they received from China while faithfully acknowledging support from other foreign countries, suggesting the omissions were deliberate.

Agencies hope to harmonize their efforts

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Agency panel at JCORE summit

NSF Director France Córdova, second from left, and DOE Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar, far right, spoke about their new emphasis on disclosure policies at a summit convened by the White House on Nov. 5.

(Image credit – DOE)

As agencies work to shore up their procedures, their efforts have created considerable consternation in the scientific community, including among organizations deeply engaged with policy. For instance, the Council on Governmental Relations, a university association, has argued that a “clarification” the National Science Foundation has proposed to its disclosure policy “differs dramatically from common interpretation of previous guidance” and could entail substantial administrative burden.

Rebecca Keiser, the head of NSF’s Office of International Science and Engineering, told FYI the agency was “quite surprised” by that characterization, saying the requirements date back decades. She noted, though, that the agency is planning to refine the clarification and is developing a new form to aid disclosure. Lauer likewise insisted NIH is clarifying, not expanding, its disclosure requirements.

Both agencies have made clear their own employees are already prohibited from accepting any “employment, gifts, or compensation” from foreign governments, which includes participation in talent programs. Keiser and Lauer also said their agencies have no plans to restrict extramural grantees from participating in such programs, leaning instead on disclosure requirements to identify potential conflicts of interest and commitment.

Meanwhile, the Department of Energy appeared poised to take a more aggressive approach when in January it announced plans to restrict its grantees from participating in talent programs operated by “sensitive” countries, which it subsequently identified as China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. However, while DOE has since barred its employees and contractors from such programs, it appears the department may ultimately not extend the prohibition to extramural grantees.

A DOE official told FYI that, following a workshop with university leaders this past summer, the department decided to focus on implementing disclosure requirements. “One of the important points that has been driven home to us is that harmonization of any new requirements [across agencies] is very important,” the official said.

Separately, DOE has also been developing a list of sensitive research areas in which collaborations between its laboratories and sensitive countries will be restricted. Although an internal memorandum initially indicated the policy would be extended to grantees, the DOE official said the department has not decided whether to follow through with that. The official also noted the policy will entail an extra layer of review rather than a prohibition on such collaborations, contrary to what the initial memorandum stated, and is focused on the same four countries as the talent program policy.

Recently, agencies have been coordinating their efforts through the Joint Committee on the Research Environment (JCORE), which the White House stood up in May to address a variety of high-priority issues. This week, the committee held a summit at the White House with leaders of the scientific community to gather feedback on questions concerning research integrity and security, among other topics.

Speaking at the event, DOE Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar explained that when he arrived at the department two years ago, its national laboratories “didn't have any policies around disclosure.” Saying there was a clear need to institute a framework for identifying conflicts of interest, he noted DOE had discovered employees who were concurrently working for institutions affiliated with foreign military programs in one of the sensitive countries.

NSF Director France Córdova acknowledged agencies have “created some confusion” in the research community and said she expects JCORE will help them develop a more uniform approach. “We're all trying to do the right thing,” she said.

Conference spotlights profiling concerns

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Steven Chu

Former Energy Secretary Steven Chu spoke at a September conference on how federal research security initiatives are affecting Chinese scientists.

(Image credit – Committee of 100)

Growing anxieties within the research community were the focus of a conference held in September by the Committee of 100, an association of prominent Chinese Americans.

Stanford University physicist Steven Chu, who led DOE from 2009 to 2013, argued its recent actions and those of other agencies have had a significant chilling effect on scientific collaborations. He recounted that a DOE official he was speaking with about a new battery research project was excited about the effort until learning one of the graduate students leading it was from China. Chu recalled the official saying, “Oh, that is a problem.”

Chu also said DOE national laboratory directors had been told to “really stop the collaborations with Chinese counterparts in high energy physics, cosmology, things of that nature.” Asked to comment on this statement, a DOE official said the department has not instructed lab directors to halt collaborations in these areas, noting they are not considered sensitive.

Another concern raised at the conference is whether the government is subjecting Chinese nationals and Chinese Americans to biased treatment.

Participants repeatedly referenced cases of researchers such as Wen Ho Lee, Sherry Chen, and Xiaoxing Xi, who were arrested for espionage only to later have their cases dropped. Xi, who spoke at the conference, has just been awarded the Andrei Sakharov Prize from the American Physical Society for his efforts to “clarify the nature of international scientific collaboration in cases involving allegations of scientific espionage.”

Citing Xi’s case and others as evidence racial profiling is occurring, Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Chair Judy Chu (D-CA) outlined efforts in Congress that aim to prevent Chinese Americans from being scrutinized for “studying while Chinese.”

Caltech President Thomas Rosenbaum, who participated in the conference, told FYI afterward, “It was the depth of feeling that there was real racial profiling at the conference that was extraordinary to me. I don't imagine that is the intent of the government. But certainly that is the message that has been received by many of our colleagues who are Chinese American.”

Chu said in his address that he could not speak generally about whether racial profiling is occurring, but noted he has heard some scientists raise concerns about bias creeping into agency decisions. “When I talk to a few young assistant professors who are Chinese who've been hired, say, at Stanford, they're worried. What are they worried about? It's not what's written down. It's what's unwritten,” he remarked.

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