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Parting Trump memo on U.S. research security seen as road map for Biden

A memo by outgoing President Donald Trump on how to prevent China and other U.S. adversaries from gaining improper access to research funded by the federal government is getting surprisingly positive reviews from research advocates.

Issued on 14 January, National Security Presidential Memorandum (NSPM)-33 offers a list of directives to federal agencies, universities, and individual scientists on how protect national security without abandoning the hallmark openness of U.S. science. Officially, the memo is now just another archived document from a former president. But university officials say they wouldn’t mind seeing President Joe Biden draw from its recommendations in crafting his administration’s broader approach to dealing with China.

“I don’t know how to read the political tea leaves, but right now I’m cautiously optimistic,” says Mary Millsaps, who oversees compliance with federal research rules at Purdue University. “I think it sets a common framework for the next round of discussions.”

Observers say the memo is a tribute to the perseverance of Kelvin Droegemeier, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) under Trump. They praise his ability to stay under the radar of an administration many regarded as hostile to science and one that used economic and political sanctions to thwart what it saw as a no-holds-barred campaign by China to unseat the United States as the world’s leading scientific nation.

Droegemeier also faced political pressure from hardliners in Congress seeking to curb or end most research collaborations with China in the name of protecting U.S. interests. And the work was carried out amid of a government crackdown on academic and government scientists who had allegedly failed to disclose ties to China to their funders and employers; some researchers were fired or resigned, others face criminal or civil charges of violating federal law.

Protecting “American values”

Droegemeier, a meteorologist and former vice president for research at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, didn’t join OSTP until January 2019. But within a few months he had announced plans to hammer out a governmentwide consensus on how to promote “American values” in the conduct of research.

In a bid to clarify the rules and identify best practices, Droegemeier formed a new group within the interagency National Science and Technology Council that he chaired. In addition to its internal deliberations, the Joint Committee on the Research Environment (JCORE) held dozens of both physical and virtual town halls at campuses across the country seeking input from academic leaders and rank-and-file scientists.

Higher education lobbyists are still parsing the memo, which the community had been expecting for several months. “It’s fair to ask why it took [OSTP] so long,” says one university official who requested anonymity because discussions are ongoing. “Maybe [Droegemeier] needed the time to fight off bad things.”

“There’s still a lot for agencies to work out in terms of implementation,” the lobbyist added. “But it certainly falls within the broad parameters of what we think the federal government should be doing.”

(Droegemeier, a political appointee who stepped down last week, declined requests from ScienceInsider to discuss the memo, which is accompanied by a list of “promising practices” for agencies and institutions. An OSTP spokesperson said it was premature for anyone from the Biden team to comment.)

Chewing over the details

The presidential memo is a coda to the Trump administration’s China initiative, launched in November 2018. It has led to the U.S. Department of Justice bringing criminal charges against more than a dozen U.S. scientists, many of them Chinese-born. On 14 January, Gang Chen, an engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), became the most recent addition to the list.

The cases usually involve the alleged failure of a scientist to disclose ties to a foreign entity, most often a Chinese research institution or government agency, when applying for U.S. funding. (The charges against Chen, now on administrative leave from MIT, involve a grant proposal to the Department of Energy, one of several federal agencies that has supported his work on heat transfer at the molecular level.) The National Institutes of Health has been by far the most aggressive federal agency in that regard, identifying hundreds of scientists thought to have violated its rules on listing other research support when seeking a grant.

University administrators have complained that current government policies on disclosure are vague and vary across agencies. NSPM-33 aims to fill in the details and make those disclosure policies uniform across the government. It also addresses situations in which scientists may have overextended themselves in allocating their time, thereby shortchanging the federal government, and spells out an escalating series of penalties for those who cross the line.

The memo calls for increased scrutiny of foreigners seeking to study and do research in the United States, with the vetting remaining in the hands of the departments of State and Homeland Security. University officials prefer that approach to the suggestion by some policymakers that campuses be assigned the job. Administrators say their institutions are not equipped to assess whether persons allowed into the country could be a security risk, and that imposing restrictions on some scholars based on their area of expertise would violate fundamental principles of academic freedom.

If agencies adopt the memo’s guidance, campuses would be required to implement research security training for all faculty, students, and staff who are supported on federal grants. The rationale is that taking such preventive steps would be a more effective way to protect the country’s interest than simply punishing violators after the fact.

Next steps

NSPM-33 deals with only one of four topics that Droegemeier asked JCORE to examine. The others relate to research integrity, ensuring a safe and productive research environment, and reducing the administrative burden on federal grantees. But responding to concerns about national security was always seen as the most pressing need.

The fate of the memo’s recommendations rests with the Biden administration, which is still building up its science team. Eric Lander has been nominated as Droegemeier’s successor at OSTP, but he must first be confirmed by the Senate. At the same time, the bulk of JCORE’s work was carried out by career civil servants, who remain in place.

Congress can also play an important role through legislation. Recent must-pass bills providing guidance to the Department of Defense have included language that dealt with aspects of the problem, in particular, imposing penalties for nondisclosure. But it’s more likely legislators will defer to the new administration, at least initially.

“You don’t want to overlegislate,” says one congressional staffer who tracks the issue. “Sometimes you need to take a pause and let things sort out.”

But waiting for agencies to craft language that fleshes out the recommendations in the memo is also fraught. The proposed requirement for research security training is a prime example, says one lobbyist, who warns against coming up with a one-size-fits-all solution. For example, institutions with billion-dollar research portfolios face different challenges from those that perform relatively little federal research. (The memo proposes applying the rules to any institution that receives as little as $50 million in federal research funds.) In addition, universities that conduct classified research already follow strict security protocols, the lobbyist notes.

Beyond federal research

Melissa Flagg, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology and former senior Pentagon research official, is urging the Biden administration to take a broader approach to protecting U.S. research from undue foreign influences. Although she applauds what Droegemeier was able to accomplish, she faults JCORE for “coming at the problem from a legal framework, in terms of disclosure, violations, and punishments for noncompliance.” Instead, Flagg says, “what research institutions really need is help in assessing their security risks and suggestions for nonpunitive ways to response to the threats they are facing.”

Flagg adds that the presidential memo only applies to research funded by the federal government, which is only 22% of the country’s research activity. The private sector funds and carries out the vast majority of U.S. research, and she worries that overly onerous security requirements could lead many academics to decide to forsake federal funding altogether.

Others doubt that faculty members will move from “hard money to easy money” in order to avoid dealing with the new rules. For university administrators like Millsaps, uncertainty remains their biggest worry.

“Right now we spent a lot of time guessing what each agency is thinking,” she says. “Ideally, common language would go a long way to helping us meet any new requirements.”