Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Davide Bonazzi/Salzman Art

U.S. scientists who hide foreign ties should face research misconduct sanctions, panel says

U.S. scientists who violate government rules on disclosing foreign research ties should be investigated for research misconduct, says an independent group of prominent scientists asked to examine the threat of foreign influences on the U.S. research enterprise. Although the report concludes that the threat is real, it says the government should not impose new restrictions on the pursuit of basic research in the name of protecting national security.

These and other recommendations come from Jason, a free-standing group based in McLean, Virginia, that has advised the government on national security issues since the early days of the Cold War. The National Science Foundation (NSF) hired Jason to tackle the politically sensitive issue of foreign influence on U.S.-funded research amid calls from Congress and the White House to crack down on the open exchange of scientific information.

Those calls are largely a response to China’s no-holds-barred approach to acquiring the latest technology and intellectual property on its way to becoming a global scientific superpower. Its decade-old Thousand Talents Program of recruiting prominent scientists—including ethnic Chinese who are now U.S. citizens—has come under special scrutiny. Among federal agencies, the National Institutes of Health has been especially aggressive, flagging nearly 200 scientists it believes have failed to disclose their ties to foreign entities or improperly shared confidential information with overseas researchers.

The Jason report describes four ways—rewarding the scientist or coercing them to adopt specific behavior, deceiving the funding institution, or outright theft of intellectual property—in which a foreign government can exert its influence “that might run counter to U.S. values of science ethics.” Jason said it could not determine how often these violations occur but that “there are enough verified instances to warrant concern and action.”

Uphold research integrity

In calling for action, however, the Jason report says the government must not abandon what has made the U.S. research enterprise so successful. “The benefits of openness in research and of the inclusion of talented foreign researchers dictate against measures that would wall off particular areas of fundamental research,” it concludes. Instead, Jason suggests policymakers combat any threats by applying existing principles governing the responsible conduct of research. If scientists ignore those ethical principles—which include not fabricating data or plagiarizing the work of others—when collaborating with foreign entities, their behavior should be seen as a violation of research integrity, the report notes. “And the consequences, Jason says, “should be similar to those in place for scientific misconduct.”

Linking efforts to curb foreign influence to the well-established process of investigating misconduct is a novel contribution to the current debate over how to deal with scientists who have broken rules laid by the federal agencies that fund their research. But Jason sees it as a logical extension of what funding agencies are already doing. “Misconduct is anything that compromises the results of our attempt to understand the world through research,” says one co-author of the report who requested anonymity because Jason generally does not disclose the names of those who write its reports.

Reframing the debate in terms of research integrity would also put universities in the driver’s seat, as they are now the institutions with the responsibility to investigate allegations of research misconduct. “Universities should welcome the opportunity to do that,” the co-author says, “because they have a lot at stake. They are directly affected by the loss of intellectual capital, or for any violations of NSF policy.”

No new categories

Jason also tackled the thorny issue of whether some types of fundamental research should be fenced off to thwart those who want to take unfair advantage of the traditionally open U.S. research enterprise. In 1985, then-President Ronald Reagan decided fundamental research that is not classified should remain open to all.

But that policy, spelled out in National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 189, is under attack by those who feel it provides insufficient protection of U.S. national interests. So NSF asked Jason to look at whether some research should be controlled rather than openly available.

No, the report says, in a word. It defends the clear distinction made in the Reagan order. “JASON concludes that it is neither feasible nor desirable to control areas of fundamental research beyond the mechanisms put in place by NSDD-189. It is not possible to draw boundaries around broad fields of fundamental research and define what is included and what is excluded in that discipline.”

More recent attempts to do so have not gone well, the report notes. A 2010 order from then-President Barack Obama creating a category of controlled unclassified information (CUI) has been unwieldly and confusing to researchers, it concludes.

“JASON cannot recommend adoption of a CUI mechanism to secure additional categories of information generation by U.S. universities,” the report states. “Rather, the general principle of creating high walls, i.e. classification, around narrowly defined areas should be adhered to.”

Look before you leap

Despite warning against additional restrictions, the report says the academic community needs to do much more to protect the U.S. research enterprise against unwelcome foreign intrusions. It acknowledges that other countries, in particular China, do not play by the same rules. Chinese students and scientists working in the United States might even consider it acceptable to share confidential research information with their government, it notes. To correct these misconceptions, the report urges U.S. scientists to do a better job of teaching ethical research practices to their foreign students and colleagues.

The report also suggests scientists think harder ahead of time about the possible negative consequences of foreign collaboration before they plunge ahead. The report suggests investigators ask themselves a “catechism” of questions, such as whether they know everyone who will be participating in the project and whether it’s clear how the results will be disseminated. The report proposes that universities go through a similar exercise, asking themselves whether the collaboration poses a risk to U.S. national security or economic competitiveness or to the institution’s “core values.”

The report focuses on NSF’s role because that agency requested the report. But the authors also think NSF should be the key player in the ongoing national debate over how to manage any research interactions with foreign governments. (That debate is the focus of two new bodies, one based in the White House and one at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, that Congress is expected to create this week as part of a larger bill authorizing programs at the Department of Defense.)

“NSF is the classiest of the federal research agencies and sets the standard,” says one co-author who requested anonymity. “We hope that NSF can come up with sensible guidelines that apply not just to NSF grantees, but to anyone receiving federal funding.”

This report is the first time the agency has contracted with Jason. Agency officials called the recommendations “valuable” and said they would be open to doing it again if they need advice on issues involving both academic research and national security.