The COVID-19 pandemic has driven home the importance of international collaboration in science to solve global problems, and witnesses at a House Space, Science, and Technology Committee hearing on October 5 emphasized the importance of balancing the benefits of open collaboration in science with the pressing need for information security in the research enterprise.

“Openness in science allows for reproduction and replication of work, increasing reliability of conclusions and building public trust,” said Rep. Bill Foster, chairman of the Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight. “It fosters cooperation across disciplines, brings in new perspectives, and sparks new ideas that wouldn’t come from any one solitary lab or country,” he continued.

How the U.S. handles scientific and technological rivalry with nation-state adversaries will help determine how prosperous and secure the U.S. is in the future, and Dr. Maria T. Zuber, Vice President for Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, described the research/security question as a balancing act.

“We need to guard against [our adversaries] improper activities without harming the U.S. scientific enterprise or cutting off collaborations that benefit us,” said Zuber.

Recent reports from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) note challenges the research community faces in combatting undue foreign influence, while at the same time maintaining an open research environment that fosters collaboration, transparency, and the free exchange of ideas.

Striking that balance requires the Federal government and universities to be as clear as possible about what they’re trying to prevent, and what requirements are being imposed, witnesses at the hearing said.

Beyond outright theft and espionage involving scientific research, there are at least three kinds of activities, according to Zuber, that government academic authorities should be trying to stop:

  • Foreign adversaries should not be allowed to pay U.S. faculty – especially not surreptitiously – to transfer work funded by Federal grants, recruit researchers, or spend time in foreign countries that conflict with commitments to U.S. institutions;
  • Research collaborations with adversaries should be structured so that they are truly reciprocal, and so that each party has clear, legitimate benefits from the work; and
  • Universities should not enter collaborations that would harm U.S. national or economic security, or threaten human rights.

“To ensure that we focus on genuine concerns, Federal agencies need to clarify reporting requirements, which too often remain conflicting and inconsistent,” Zuber said.

She said the Biden administration is preparing guidance for implementing National Security Presidential Memorandum (NSPM)-33 – a process to which Zuber has contributed – and which she said will provide helpful guidance.

Candice N. Wright, director for Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics at GAO, talked about a December 2020 GAO report that recommends grant-making agencies disclose and address non-financial conflicts of interest in their policies. The report also recommends that agencies and universities address potential foreign threats, and disclose any participation in foreign talent recruitment programs.

“If agencies take steps to fully implement our recommendations to clarify further their conflicts of interest policies and written procedures to address alleged violations, they could improve their ability as well as enhance universities’ capacity to identify and mitigate conflicts and ensure consistency in enforcement,” Wright said.

“Implementing our recommendations, in conjunction with the guidance in NSPM-33, could better enable the research enterprise [to] address the growing concern of foreign influence in Federally funded research,” she added.

For Allison C. Lerner, inspector general for the National Science Foundation (NSF), safeguarding the agency’s programs and operations and providing rigorous, independent oversight of NSF is crucial. And a part of doing that is to look at the challenges posed to NSF by foreign government talent recruitment programs.

“When it came to deciding our investigative response to the risks posed by membership in foreign government talent recruitment plans, we stayed in our lane, the area where our skills are strongest, and brought our in-depth knowledge of grant fraud to the comprehensive, whole of government response to this challenge,” Lerner said.

However, according to Zuber, while the U.S. must protect its research enterprise, the Federal government should not impose restrictions that damage U.S. research capacity.

In that category could be poorly-targeted measures would reduce the ability of U.S. universities to fund research, granting undefined authority to impose new limits on university research, promulgating policies that broadly discourage international (mainly from China) graduate students from coming to the U.S., or attempting to impose limits on the kinds of research projects in which international students can participate.

“The government should, of course, strictly vet which students are admitted to the United States,” she said. “However, once a student is admitted, they should participate in any unclassified research project, just like any other student, except in very limited circumstances, such as when participation would violate export controls. U.S. universities should not be routinely required to treat students differently based on nationality alone,” she added.

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Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.