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U.S. academics, make sure you know the rules about foreign funding and affiliations

Openness, intellectual freedom, and international collaboration are traditional hallmarks of university science in the United States. Recently, however, federal funding and law enforcement agencies—as well as universities themselves—have been taking steps that some see as counter to these values in the interest of protecting U.S. research and technology from foreign threats, especially from China.

This changing climate means that academic scientists working in the United States—and especially those who are foreign born—need to make sure they are fully informed about disclosure rules from their granting agencies and their U.S. institutions related to funding, financial conflicts of interest, and institutional affiliations. They must also think carefully about which opportunities they should accept. And universities bear some of the responsibility for helping them make informed decisions.   

Changing times

The United States and China are currently experiencing a major shift from a “period of engagement” to a “period of rivalry” in which China strives to overtake U.S. science and technology, says Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. “The concerns of the FBI and the security people in Washington are legitimate and necessary” given efforts by China and others to acquire U.S. research by sometimes devious means, he adds. “The problem,” Daly continues, “is how do you walk the line between an appropriate level of vigilance and acknowledging the contributions of [foreign-born scientists] and maintaining the open, international character of American universities?”

Over many decades, Daly notes, Chinese researchers studying and working in the United States “have made an invaluable and essential contribution” to U.S. science, as many went “back and forth between the United States and China, … contribut[ing] positively to both nations.” In former times, recent cases involving alleged infractions of federal requirements to report outside activities by Chinese-born faculty members at the University of Kansas (KU), the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and Emory University might have very likely passed as professorial absent-mindedness, sloppy paperwork, or questionable moonlighting.

The current “contentious rivalry,” however, has changed the terms of scientific work, Daly says. Enmeshed in a “very high-stakes” contest that is “going to be around for a very long time,” research is no longer seen “as politically innocent either by Beijing or by Washington” because no one knows who will make or benefit economically, militarily, or politically from “the really important next discoveries.” And, as a 2018 report from Stanford University’s Hoover Institution states, “naïveté [and] commitment to intellectual freedom on campus” make universities especially vulnerable to spying and theft as China, the most aggressive of several adversaries, targets U.S. research laboratories with “methods and tradecraft … custom-tailored to each target.”

“The older generation of Chinese researchers and scholars” never had to “make a choice that … ‘I’m with the American project or I’m with the Chinese project,’” Daly says. “Young scientists of Chinese origin now need to make that choice. They’re not free to sort of pass on that. The politics won’t let them.”

Avoiding trouble

This new situation means that all scientists covered by U.S. disclosure rules must take seriously the need to report completely and honestly any and all activities and financial interests that are in any way related to their university responsibilities. The stakes are particularly high for those who receive funding from federal agencies and therefore could be subject to federal prosecution for failure to comply.

A recent National Institutes of Health (NIH) notice reminds applicants how they are expected to disclose foreign ties in accordance with the agency’s policies. Applicants must list “all resources made available to a researcher in support of and/or related to all of their research endeavors, regardless of whether or not they have monetary value and regardless of whether they are based at the institution the researcher identifies for the current grant.” As part of this, they must “[l]ist all positions and scientific appointments both domestic and foreign held by senior/key personnel that are relevant to an application … whether or not remuneration is received, and whether full-time, part-time, or voluntary.”

And a 2018 notice clarifies that investigators “must disclose all financial interests received from a foreign institution of higher education or the government of another country.” This rule covers all investigators, who can include postdocs and graduate students as well as faculty—it’s defined as everyone “responsible for the design, conduct, or reporting” of funded research. If your role involves any of those tasks, it’s wise to ask your university whether you must file disclosures.

The National Science Foundation similarly requires that applicants disclose “all current and pending support for ongoing projects and proposals”—including any funding from foreign government agencies. Key personnel must also disclose all organizational affiliations. Universities may also have their own policies regarding disclosing conflicts of interest and outside affiliations, if they are allowed.       

These rules are particularly relevant given the apparent success of China’s Thousand Talents Program, one of a number of Chinese government programs seeking to repatriate the expertise of its educated expatriates. According to a 2018 NIH report, since 2008 the program has recruited 56,000 researchers to full- or part-time employment at Chinese universities—many while simultaneously maintaining posts at universities in the United States and other countries. Presumably some of those in the United States are also applying for funding from agencies that require them to disclose their foreign affiliations and support. 

Failure to comply can carry serious consequences. Feng “Franklin” Tao, an associate professor of chemistry at KU in Lawrence, was indicted in August on federal charges of multiple counts of fraud for allegedly holding a full-time position at a Chinese university while working on federally funded research at KU. He faces decades in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines if convicted. MD Anderson and Emory broke ties with established researchers over allegedly not disclosing funding tied to China in their NIH grant proposals, and other suspected cases are also under investigation.

The existence of these dangers now obliges universities to “defend” their scientists by educating them about the regulations and then seeing that they are followed, Daly says. Researchers can’t be left to inform themselves because “they don’t know what questions to ask [or] where to go to get information” on an often highly technical matter outside their areas of interest or expertise. “Dear faculty” letters giving general guidance or links to explanations won’t suffice, Daly adds. The new situation represents a culture change requiring both university officials and researchers to take security and disclosure with a new and unaccustomed seriousness. Specifically, he believes, institutions “need to sit people down and say, ‘Look, we want to keep you guys out of prison.’”

For scientists originally from China, accepting an appointment at a U.S. university can no longer be seen as just a job, Daly notes. People need to understand that it can now represent a decision “to have your research and scholarship contribute to the United States,” possibly in competition with China. “Don’t double dip,” he adds. “If you are considering taking an appointment that would have you back in China for 3 months of the summer, you’ve to go to your department chair … and report it before the fact” or risk jeopardy for your institution and yourself.

If Daly is interpreting the situation correctly, scientists need to protect themselves with actions and attitudes seemingly at odds with academic tradition, which may feel strange and uncomfortable. But, he warns, the U.S.-China “relationship hasn’t reached bottom yet.” So, even as scientists may hope better days will return, wisdom clearly argues for learning the rules and meticulously following them.

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