A Focus on Foreign Influence in Washington, DC

October 9, 2019

Last month, Kelvin Droegemeier, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), wrote a letter to the U.S. research community on the topic of foreign influence on our scientific enterprise. Dreoegemeier announced that the OSTP will be holding meetings about research security at academic institutions across the country, inviting researchers and students to join.

These convenings will be part of the Joint Committee on the Research Environment’s effort to make research security a priority with four primary activities: Coordinating outreach and engagement; Establishing and coordinating disclosure requirements; Developing best practices for academic research institutions; Developing methods for identification, assessment, and management of risk.

Also last month, the Office of Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released three reports examining efforts and providing recommendations to combat foreign influence in research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

As federal agencies focus on foreign influence, so does Congress. Three bills of note have been introduced to protect intellectual property and defend against espionage: Protect Our Universities Act (S.1879), Securing American Science and Technology Act of 2019 (H.R.3038), and Secure American Research Act of 2019 (S.2133). In addition, Senate appropriators included the following language in the report accompanying their draft fiscal year 2020 budget for NIH: “The Chinese government has started a program to recruit NIH-funded researchers to steal intellectual property, cheat the peer-review system, establish shadow laboratories in China, and help the Chinese government obtain confidential information about NIH research grants.”

While there seems to be widespread agreement about the importance of truthful disclosures and transparency, scientific societies are expressing concern about some of the proposed legislation and tactics. On September 4th, sixty science, engineering, and education organizations sent a letter to U.S. agencies encouraging them to balance national security concerns with impacts to scientific enterprise and raising the possibility that enforcement efforts have gone too far. “Many scientists—both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals—who properly follow codes of conduct, regulations, policies and laws, may inappropriately be harmed in response to the misconduct and illegal actions of others.” An article in Science reported that ‘many Chinese American scientists fear the increased scrutiny will result in unfair ethnic profiling.’

See previous FABBS coverage: “Congress Examines Foreign Influences in Taxpayer Funded Research