The National Science Foundation headquarters

The US National Science Foundation is revising its policies on conflicts of interest.Credit: National Science Foundation

The threat of improper foreign influence on US science — in particular from China — is real and growing, the elite science advisory group known as JASON has warned in a report to the US National Science Foundation (NSF).

But the group also said that the US government should address the situation in ways that preserve the country’s ability to attract top international talent. “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,” says the report, which the NSF released on 11 December.

The highly anticipated analysis is based on classified and unclassified evidence provided by intelligence, law-enforcement and science agencies, including the NSF, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Energy (DOE). It says that “actions of the Chinese government and its institutions that are not in accord with U.S. values of science ethics” have led to a lack of transparency, unreciprocal research collaborations and insufficient reporting of conflicts of interest.

Addressing these concerns will require the federal government to strengthening and harmonizing policies on research integrity and conflict of interest across agencies, the report says.

Rebecca Keiser, who heads the NSF’s office of international science and engineering, praised the analysis for its clear description of the risks to US science. “It’s been hard for us to make that argument to the [research] community,” she says. “We needed the Jasons to help us.”

Michael Lauer, the NIH deputy director for extramural research, said in a statement that the report confirms that “the threat is real and must be taken seriously by the government, by institutions and by all interested stakeholders.”

US science agencies have struggled to deal with the growing concerns about improper foreign influence. A sweeping probe that the NIH launched in April 2018 has prompted investigations at dozens of academic institutions — and has raised concerns about racial profiling, because most of the scientists involved are ethnically Chinese.

The DOE, which oversees national laboratories that conduct classified research related to national security and nuclear weapons, said in June that its employees could not participate in foreign talent-recruitment programmes. These include China’s Thousand Talents Plan, which seeks to attract high-profile scientists working abroad to bolster the country’s domestic research.

Paul Dabbar, who leads the DOE Office of Science, told Nature last month that some agency employees participating in such programmes had received millions of dollars, and had signed contracts that required them to transfer any technologies they developed to the foreign government. He said that the DOE had faced several challenges in dealing with the issue. Employees did not always disclose their involvement in the programmes, and the agency did not have clear rules governing their participation.

“We didn’t have the data, and we didn’t have the policies to deal with it,” Dabbar said.

Seeking solutions

The scale and scope of foreign influence in US science remains unclear, says the JASON report, which argues that federal agencies must better define and communicate the threat.

Many of the advisory group’s recommendations focus on implementing policies to ensure that scientists disclose any potential conflicts of interest or of commitment that might arise when foreign governments fund research activities abroad. That includes the Thousand Talents Plan.

China’s efforts to gather information and influence the US science enterprise are probably the largest and most organized, the JASON report says. But it warns against assuming that Chinese citizens working in the United States, or US citizens of Chinese descent, agree with the Chinese government. Such individuals “should be judged on their personal actions and not by profiling,” the Jasons wrote.

The Chinese government, contacted through its embassy in Washington DC, has not yet replied to Nature’s request for comment on the JASON analysis.

“This report is right on target,” says Wayne Mowery, an export-compliance officer at Pennsylvania State University in State College. “We cannot stay at the forefront of science by locking our doors to foreign engagements. We can, however, have reasonable and reasonably communicated expectations of what such engagement means from a research-integrity perspective.”

Steven Pei, a physicist at the University of Houston and former chair of the advocacy group United Chinese Americans in Washington DC, says the report's recommendations strike the right balance between strengthening disclosure rules and maintaining openness in scientific research.

Next steps

Federal science agencies are already working to coordinate their disclosure policies. The NIH has created an online form for compulsory disclosure of affiliations by its grant recipients; Keiser says the NSF plans to adopt it. Meanwhile, the NSF is developing an online system for disclosure of research support, including support for facilities or research staff as well as funding. That system will go live in early 2020, and the NIH also plans to use it.

The DOE is working on a “risk matrix” to assess security risks involving emerging technologies and to determine whether additional protection is needed. An agency spokesperson says the DOE remains “committed to preserving and championing” principles such as open data access, transparency, and meritocracy in research.

And the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is working with science agencies to standardize their policies on research integrity and reduce administrative workloads.

Heather Pierce, regulatory counsel at the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington DC, says the JASON report aligns well with the ongoing discussions in federal agencies and academic institutions about how to standardize reporting. “What the report is doing is pulling these two worlds together,” she says.