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U.S. scientific research agencies tighten foreign affiliation rules

American effort responds to China’s aggressive talent recruitment program

President Joe Biden meets virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Nov. 15.
President Joe Biden meets virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Nov. 15. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

U.S. research institutions and universities are gearing up to implement steps announced last month by the Biden administration to ensure that scientists seeking federal grants are not beholden to foreign governments or interests. 

The White House National Science and Technology Council issued a set of guidelines in January designed to ensure that scientists seeking federal grants do not have conflicts of interest stemming from their participation in foreign talent recruitment programs. The guidelines address a presidential national security memorandum issued in early 2021. 

That memorandum required any research institution receiving more than $50 million in federal science and technology grants in a year to certify that it has a research security program that can identify conflicts of interests. 

The 2021 Pentagon policy measure required all U.S. federal research agencies to obtain from applicants their current sources of funding, both domestic and foreign.

The effort to identify foreign entanglements among scientists seeking U.S. grants is mostly in response to China’s aggressive talent recruitment program known as the “Thousand Talents Plan.” Launched in 2008, the Chinese plan offers salaries, honorariums, research funding and other financial support to Chinese-origin scientists and other foreign nationals to transfer their scientific knowledge to China. 

It’s not just China.

Russia and Iran also operate talent recruitment programs to potentially steal U.S. technology, the White House memo said. 

U.S. agencies and universities are developing new tools and using artificial intelligence technologies to streamline and collect data on scientists’ affiliations. 

“The affiliation itself isn’t an issue,” said Rebecca Lynn Keiser, chief of research security at the National Science Foundation in an interview. “We are concerned about and trying to differentiate talent recruitment programs overall and malign programs.” 

The Fulbright program that draws foreign scholars to the United States and Germany’s Humboldt research fellowship are some examples of legitimate talent recruitment programs, Keiser said. 

The NSF and other agencies are trying to come up with definitions of legitimate programs and distinguish them from malign ones, she said. 

The NSF is one of several institutions, including the National Institutes of Health, the departments of Defense, Energy, Agriculture and Education, as well as NASA and others that provide research grants. 

‘Being dishonest’

Unlike the U.S. and German programs, Chinese recruitment efforts ask scientists to sign legally binding contracts with Chinese institutions and “incentivize them to lie on grant applications to U.S. agencies,” concluded a 2019 investigation by a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee. 

Since 2019, the National Science Foundation has suspended 25 awards because recipients did not disclose affiliations with foreign government programs and disbarred researchers and institutions from further participation in the grants. 

“The actions we have taken, including disbarments, suspensions and terminations … really are not as much related to nondisclosure as they are related to them being dishonest about what they haven’t disclosed,” Keiser said. 

To help track nondisclosures of affiliations, whether inadvertent or deliberate, the NSF and other funding agencies are turning to artificial intelligence programs and big-data analytics, Keiser said. 

Grant applications and details of individual researchers are fed into tools that scour giant databases of scientific literature, including Web of Science and Scopus, that contain citations and funding sources. Then, “we do a text analysis to see what we find” about nondisclosed affiliations, Keiser said. 

The goal of any research security program must be to stop U.S.-funded research from being stolen, Maria Zuber, vice president of research at MIT, told lawmakers late last year. 

“China should not be allowed to pay U.S. faculty, especially not surreptitiously, to transfer work that is funded by federal grants or to recruit researchers for China or to spend time in China with conflicts with commitments to U.S. institutions,” Zuber told the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight. 

To continue research collaboration with China, such relationships should be “structured so that they are transparent and reciprocal, where each party has clear legitimate benefits from their work,” Zuber said.

And universities “should not enter into collaborations that would harm U.S. national or economic security or threaten human rights,” Zuber said.

The White House memo asks funding agencies to develop uniform data collection methods, as well as to develop so-called digital persistent identifiers — unique identification numbers linked to research applicants, similar to Social Security numbers — to avoid name-based duplications. 

Keiser and others have said the effort to identify foreign affiliations and sources of funding should not turn into a witch hunt of Chinese-American researchers and other foreign students. 

Agencies must implement research security provisions of U.S. law and the presidential order “in a nondiscriminatory manner that does not stigmatize or treat unfairly members of the research community, including members of ethnic or racial minority groups,” the White House memo said. 

The goal of developing tools that do not discriminate against specific groups “is a requirement that we fully support,” said Joanne Padron Carney, a spokeswoman for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

‘Too far overboard’

The Government Accountability Office, which examined research security programs across federal grant-making institutions, noted in a 2020 report that in addition to financial conflict-of-interest issues, agencies also needed to consider nonfinancial interests that applicants may have with foreign institutions. 

Universities and researchers are waiting to see what types of nonfinancial interests might be included as federal agencies develop procedures, Carney said. Nonfinancial aspects may include a researcher getting an award or a plaque as a token of recognition, she said. 

Since a significant portion of research grants goes through U.S. universities, the academic institutions take the threat of foreign malign influence “very seriously,” said Toby Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities in an interview.

“It’s a top issue … and university vice presidents for research want to talk about, share effective practices, and AAU with our colleagues at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities have actually done a survey and collected and shared best practices,” Smith said.

“But we have to, at the same time, be careful not to go too far overboard in terms of new requirements and restrictions that could harm our ability to do science in ways that will not help national security but instead could hurt it, or in ways that discouraged, for instance, foreign talent from coming to the United States to study, conduct research and stay here,” Smith said.

The Justice Department’s China Initiative, launched in 2018 to counter Beijing’s aggressive economic espionage, has been widely criticized for targeting Chinese-American scientists. 

Last month, federal prosecutors dropped charges against Gang Chen, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, who was arrested in January 2021 during the last week of the Trump administration. 

Chen was charged with leaving out his affiliation with Chinese government institutions in his grant applications to the U.S. Department of Energy. He pleaded not guilty, and prosecutors dropped the case because Chen had no obligations to report his affiliations.

As the United States develops new protocols for identifying foreign affiliations among researchers, “I worry that we not go too far and screw up what has been the best talent recruitment program in the world,” Smith said. 

“That’s our system of outstanding colleges and universities and the values that our people hold,” Smith said. “It’s why foreign researchers want to come here and work and stay and contribute to our science, which has given us a huge advantage in the past, and it’s one we ought to be conscious of as we develop new research security-related rules.”

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