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Many foreign scientists could be banned from working at such Department of Energy facilities as the Center for Nanoscale Materials at Argonne National Laboratory (above) in Lemont, Illinois.

Mark Lopez/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

New DOE policies would block many foreign research collaborations

Scientists who work for or receive funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in Washington, D.C., are facing a ban on collaborating with researchers from dozens of countries deemed to pose security risks.

The new policy, spelled out in two recent memos from DOE’s Deputy Secretary Dan Brouillette, are meant to thwart attempts by foreign governments to steal U.S.-funded research. But some scientists worry DOE may be overreacting to the espionage threat, and fear its approach could stifle progress in areas important to U.S. economic and national security.

The first memo, dated 14 December 2018, restricts DOE-funded researchers working in unspecified emerging research areas and technologies from collaborating with colleagues from “sensitive” countries. Given DOE’s recent research priorities, the affected fields could include artificial intelligence, supercomputing, quantum information, nanoscience, and advanced manufacturing. The sensitive nations are not named, but DOE now gives that label to about 30 countries for travel and security purposes. The memo also establishes a new, centralized DOE oversight body that will maintain a list of sensitive nations and research areas and has the authority to approve exemptions from the collaboration ban.

The second memo, issued on 31 January and first reported by The Wall Street Journal, would prohibit DOE-funded scientists from participating in foreign talent-recruitment programs such as China’s Thousand Talents program.

Finding the right balance

Lab directors and university administrators are scrambling to understand the new directives, which DOE officials have yet to flesh out. But Paul Dabbar, who oversees the national labs and the department’s extramural research program as undersecretary for science, told ScienceInsider yesterday that the driving principle isn’t hard to understand.

“We’re not saying that universities can’t take money from these countries; that is their decision,” Dabbar says. “But if you’re working for [DOE], and taking taxpayer dollars, we don’t want you to work for them at the same time.” Employees at DOE’s 17 national laboratories would be given the choice of either severing their foreign ties or leaving their job, he says; academic researchers who maintain their foreign collaborations would no longer be able to compete for DOE grants.

No one disputes the need for the United States to be vigilant, research advocates say. There is ample evidence that other nations have sought to exploit the United States’s relatively open research establishment to obtain knowledge that could benefit their own industrial and military sectors. The question, they say, is how far DOE should go to safeguard national security and new technologies.

“There are legitimate concerns about the misappropriation of U.S.-funded intellectual property,” says William Madia, a vice president at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who oversees DOE’s SLAC National Accelerator in neighboring Menlo Park. “On the other hand, we can’t just shut down all international collaboration. How do we strike the right balance? … We don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater—although we do want to throw out some of the bathwater.”

DOE officials are still working out procedures for implementing the new policies. The December 2018 memo promised that DOE’s new centralized body—known as the Federal Oversight Advisory Body (FOAB)—would release by 31 January a “risk matrix” that spells out which countries and what technologies would trigger a red flag. That deadline has passed, but Dabbar is developing the matrix with his counterparts at the National Nuclear Security Administration, which maintains the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons, and DOE’s intelligence branch.

“We don’t have a particular timetable,” he says. “For the labs, we are moving toward implementation right now. For the grants programs, we still have to develop a mechanism for looking at particular grants, as they come forward.”

Dabbar declined to give an estimate of how many researchers would be affected by the new policies, and DOE couldn’t provide the number of grants it awards annually to university researchers.

The new rules apply to both foreign scientists coming to national labs and U.S.-based scientists with ties to foreign governments. In addition to tighter scrutiny of prospective visitors, for example, DOE-funded scientists in certain fields “will be generally prohibited” from traveling to countries on the matrix.

DOE will allow exemptions for “government to government” collaborations, the December 2018 memo notes. That suggests the policy shouldn’t affect major international projects such as the ITER fusion experiment under construction near Cadarache in France, or the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility being developed at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. It appears DOE will also allow smaller collaborations if researchers can provide officials with “a clear description of why this agreement benefits the United States.”

“The world is a flexible place. So, the policy will allow us to evaluate it as things change over time,” Dabbar explains.

A fraught search for talent

The crackdown on participation in foreign talent programs, outlined in the January memo, appears to have few, if any, loopholes. The memo describes these programs as “any foreign state-sponsored attempt to acquire U.S.-funded scientific research through recruitment programs that target scientists, engineers, academics, and entrepreneurs of all nationalities working or educated in the United States.”

Many countries—including such U.S. allies as Canada, Germany, and Australia—have funded such programs for years as a way to attract world-class foreign scientific talent. But the approach has become a political hot potato in the wake of several instances in which U.S.-based scientists supported by China’s Thousand Talents program have been accused—and in some cases found guilty—of espionage and the theft of intellectual property. The ban is necessary, the January memo says, because such talent programs “threaten the United States’ economic base by facilitating the unauthorized transfer of technology and intellectual property to foreign governments.”

Foreign talent programs are “a very narrow topic” for DOE within the universe of international collaborations, Dabbar emphasizes. “Universities are dealing with this foreign engagement topic at a much bigger level,” he says. “And we’re reaching out to universities and other research organizations to get their input.”

A fight over principles

Toward that end, Dabbar met earlier this week with research administrators at several major universities. He laid out the new policies and answered questions about their scope. “We don’t want to implement this without engaging the universities,” Dabbar told ScienceInsider.

One university lobbyist who requested anonymity admitted that some institutions are not aware of every international collaboration involving faculty members and emphasized that full disclosure is essential. At the same time, noted another university lobbyist, the new DOE policies appear to clash with two core academic principles: allowing students unfettered access to research opportunities and treating people equally regardless of national origin.

In the past, university efforts to protect those core principles have run into a thicket of federal rules designed to prevent improper foreign influence and the theft of intellectual property. The military and NASA, for example, often bar academic researchers from allowing graduate or postdoctoral researchers from certain foreign nations from working on research projects deemed sensitive. The National Institutes of Health requires researchers to disclose foreign collaborations on grant proposals. The Department of Commerce has extensive rules regarding what kinds of technologies can be shared with foreign collaborators.

In general, the scientific community has argued that the costs of such rules outweigh their benefits and that the U.S. government should simply classify any research results or patents it wants to protect. The new DOE policies could reignite such debates.

In the meantime, university leaders and lab directors are waiting anxiously to learn more from DOE. And the memos have certainly gotten their attention. Says one lobbyist: “This is a pretty big deal.”