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Trump’s top scientist outlines plan to reduce foreign influence on US research

Kelvin Droegemeier is arranging a listening tour of US universities in the coming months.

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Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy Kelvin Droegemeier at his offices in Washington, DC

Kelvin Droegemeier is the US government's top scientist.Credit: Stephen Voss/Redux/eyevine

After months of outcry over whether the United States government is unfairly targeting foreign-born researchers over purported security breaches, President Donald Trump’s science adviser is launching an effort to strengthen national policies on research security.

The National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) is working to establish government-wide requirements for what information researchers need to disclose to receive federal research grants. Presidential science adviser Kelvin Droegemeier, who chairs the NSTC, outlined details in an open letter to US scientists on 16 September.

Recent tensions between the US and Chinese governments have spilled over into the research community. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other federal agencies have been investigating foreign-born scientists, many of Chinese origin, for allegedly violating rules such as those requiring the disclosure of payments from other governments. The leaders of many US scientific organizations have pushed back against the crackdown. They argue that the government must balance national security against the free exchange of information, to help ensure that the United States can continue to attract top-flight scientific talent from abroad.

In his letter, Droegemeier describes how the NSTC is attempting to tackle the topic. In May it formed a committee to explore issues including research security. That panel is collecting “an array of examples in which our research enterprise was exploited or compromised”, the science adviser wrote.

Droegemeier told Nature that it was too early to say how many people federal agencies have investigated for potential security breaches. But he argued that the NSTC, which coordinates science and technology policy across the government, is well placed to guide research agencies, universities and other institutions in dealing with such issues.

“There’s a lot at stake here,” Droegemeier said. “This is an opportunity to reaffirm the fundamental principles of research, which requires ethical behaviour, honesty and integrity. I don’t think any researcher would argue that we want to compromise on these things.”

Isolated efforts

Agencies have mostly been working on their own so far. The NIH has been aggressively investigating whether the scientists it funds are abiding by its security rules. Both Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston have fired ethnically Chinese researchers after the NIH alleged they had failed to disclose foreign funding, among other charges.

The Department of Energy announced in June that its employees and contractors cannot participate in talent-recruitment programmes run by the governments of “sensitive” countries — a move thought to be targeted at China. The National Science Foundation (NSF), which in July barred its employees from participating in such programmes, has said that it is working to streamline the process by which its grant recipients must disclose all their financial support, both within the United States and from other countries.

Droegemeier’s push is meant to help coordinate and oversee these individual efforts. He says he will be visiting academic institutions across the United States in the coming months, to hear directly from scientists affected by, or interested in, the recent crackdown. “This reflects very well how he’s engaging the community,” says Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities in Washington DC.

“It’s a very good thing that they are getting out in front and taking leadership on this issue,” adds Tobin Smith, vice-president for policy at the Association of American Universities in Washington, DC. He notes that Congress is considering similar legislation that, if approved, could fold into what the NSTC has already started and work to improve the government’s response to security breaches.

Separately, the elite group of scientists who advise the US government on national security issues, known as the JASONs, is studying research security at the request of the NSF. Its report is expected this year, and will address how research institutions can best balance openness and security.

Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 17 September 2019: This story originally said that DOE had announced in January that its employees and grant recipients could not participate in foreign talent programmes. This was incorrect; the department issued guidance in January that suggested its employees and grant recipients could be barred from such programmes, but it has only finalized such a ban for employees and contractors.

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