The National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, doesn’t fund classified research. But it is hoping a group of prominent scientists with a long history of advising the U.S. military and intelligence communities can help it respond to growing concerns that international collaborations pose a security risk to the United States.
NSF officials are negotiating with Jason, an independent group set up in 1960 that has examined everything from unconventional warfare to climate change. If a deal is reached, it would be the first time that NSF has engaged the team.
“NSF is exploring work with Jason due to the specialized expertise of its members,” says Amanda Greenwell, head of NSF’s Office of Legislative and Public Affairs. NSF officials declined to answer questions about the terms and scope of the study, and Greenwell noted that “no contract with Jason has occurred to date.”
The MITRE Corporation, a nonprofit based in McLean, Virginia, that manages Jason’s interactions with the federal government, also declined to comment on the negotiations. If a deal is struck, the work would likely be carried out this summer by a team of scientists that has volunteered for the project.
A new paradigm
The unprecedented talks reflect the growing political pressure on NSF and other federal agencies to monitor all manner of foreign interactions fostered by U.S. government funding, from consulting to conducting research in the host country. The fear is that foreign entities are taking advantage of naïve U.S. researchers to steal intellectual property and acquire technologies that could threaten national security.
In recent weeks, the National Institutes of Health has sent letters to dozens of universities questioning whether some faculty members have failed to disclose foreign ties, and the Department of Energy (DOE) has told researchers that receiving support from certain countries for work in some fields would make them ineligible for DOE funding. NSF has already made several changes that limit foreign influence.
A year ago, for example, it restricted its pool of rotators—scientists who go on leave from their university for a few years to work as NSF program managers—to scientists who are U.S. citizens or who have applied for citizenship. Now, by reaching out to the Jason, NSF appears to be looking for fresh ideas on how to do business in this more constrained environment.
“Historically, U.S. national security and economic well-being have benefited from an open scientific ecosystem,” says Diane Souvaine, chair of the National Science Board in Alexandria, NSF’s presidentially appointed oversight body. “But that paradigm has shifted because of concerns about economic espionage by China. So NSF wants to look at whether this shift warrants any change in its policies.”
Steven Aftergood, who maintains a database of unclassified Jason reports going back to the 1960s, thinks it makes sense that NSF would reach out to the group. “They only handle hard problems,” says Aftergood, who monitors national security developments at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C. “They ask novel questions, their reports are always thoughtful, and sometimes their answers can be a little surprising.”
Although foreign spies traditionally have lusted after classified research—which NSF does not fund—NSF does support research in areas considered sensitive to national security. In October 2018, the science board addressed the issue by reiterating its support for a 1985 directive issued by then-President Ronald Reagan that says the government should classify any information deemed sensitive and that otherwise, “to the maximum extent possible, the products of fundamental research [should] remain unrestricted.”
Although Jason receives the bulk of its support from U.S. defense agencies, Aftergood thinks a civilian agency like NSF might be more willing to entertain the out-of-the-box recommendations that are the hallmarks of a Jason study. “Maybe DOD [the Department of Defense] and DOE [which runs the nation’s nuclear weapons laboratories] are so invested in making the current system work that they wouldn’t think to ask the question,” Aftergood says. “And if Jason comes up with any new principles for managing research relating to national security, it would only be a short step to apply them to classified work.”
New rules for rotators
The Jason study is part of a broader effort by NSF to examine how foreign influences may be warping the U.S. research enterprise. Rebecca Keiser, who heads NSF’s international office, has been meeting with university officials to lay out NSF’s concerns and receive feedback.
Keiser says she is not authorized to speak publicly on the topic. But those who have heard her presentations say she flags three areas of concern.
The first are threats to the confidentiality of NSF’s merit review system. According to a participant, she told one gathering that NSF has uncovered instances in which grant proposals were downloaded and sent to scientists in China.
The second is a commitment that the results of any NSF-funded research will be published in the open literature. Researchers from some countries face government restrictions that may limit their ability to do so, but failure to do so undermines NSF’s efforts to foster a free exchange of scientific ideas.
The third issue involves any NSF-funded scientists who conduct research outside the United States that is paid for by another country. Such a situation can raise questions about whether the scientists are devoting the necessary time and resources to the work being funded by U.S. taxpayers.
In the past year, NSF quietly made two changes affecting its grantmaking process that affect foreign-born scientists and those hoping to work outside the United States. The first, adopted in January 2018, requires any grant applicant planning to do research at an international branch campus of a U.S. institution to explain why that arrangement would be better than performing it at the home campus.
Then, in April 2018, NSF prohibited foreign citizens, including permanent residents, from serving as rotators. Greenwell explains that NSF wanted the same personnel rules to apply to everyone with access to its grants database. Because permanent government employees must be citizens, NSF decided to adopt the same standard for rotators. NSF now employs 244 rotators Greenwell says, adding that there were six rotators whose contracts were not reviewed because of the new rule.
NSF says both changes are part of an ongoing review of its procedures and are “separate and unrelated” to the question of foreign influence on the U.S. research enterprise.
Several university administrators who were once NSF rotators said they hadn’t heard of the new citizenship requirement, and they offered a range of views about its potential impact.
“I think it’s a terrible idea,” says one former rotator who requested anonymity. “Our entire scientific ecosystem relies on a combination of researchers who are citizens, permanent residents, and those who are [on] visas. And it is that diversity that makes us strong. Why should I care if someone from the United Kingdom is running an NSF program?”
One former rotator, however, thinks that limiting the job to citizens is a good idea. “You’re making decisions about allocating U.S. taxpayer dollars,” the scientist notes. “So it’s probably good to have skin in the game.”