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Universities are forging ties with the FBI as US cracks down on foreign influence

Charles Lieber, in focus, behind another man.

High-profile chemist Charles Lieber (back) was charged with making false statements about his participation in a talent programme in China.Credit: Charles Krupa/AP/Shutterstock

US universities are forging closer ties with FBI agents, encouraging scientists to disclose foreign sources of research funding, and tightening restrictions on researchers’ travel, according to administrators contacted by Nature.

The new measures follow an unprecedented sweep that began over a year ago, after the US government alleged that certain countries, particularly China, were exploiting the openness of US science for economic gain.

Nature asked research vice-presidents at various public universities — who oversee hundreds of millions of dollars of federally funded science and are key to enforcing relevant policies — what steps their institutes were taking to respond to the government concerns.

The ten responses received reveal broad cooperation with the FBI, including regular meetings and, in one case, hiring a former agent. Other measures include making it easier to report suspicious activity, for example by setting up anonymous phone lines.

But the responses also reveal frustrations. Vice-presidents complained about having to manage demands from competing agencies, and expressed concerns that hasty measures could antagonize or alienate foreign researchers working in the United States.

Unacceptable breaches

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) first acknowledged that it was scrutinizing foreign collaboration and funding in 2018, amid rising tensions between the United States and China. Researchers who accept grants from the US$40-billion agency have for decades been required to disclose concurrent funding sources. The NIH reminded university leaders of the rule and asked for help stopping “unacceptable breaches of trust and confidentiality”.

The agency says it is now investigating policy breaches by about 180 scientists at 84 institutions. Examples include researchers who apply to the NIH and a foreign funder to support the same project, or peer reviewers who send confidential information from grant applications under review to foreign entities.

Other US government agencies and committees have also responded to the alleged threat. In December, the National Science Foundation released a report on the issue prepared by the elite scientific advisory group JASON. Last year, the Department of Energy banned contractors and employees from participation in some foreign talent programmes.

Now it is clear that universities, too, are changing their behaviour. Four of the administrators contacted by Nature, including those at Washington State University in Pullman, Oklahoma State University in Stillwater and the University of North Texas (UNT) in Denton, said that they now have regular meetings with local FBI liaisons.

They say their goal is to familiarize the secretive agency with university tenets of openness, and the need for foreign collaborations. Such relationships help to avoid a “surprise knock at the door”, according to Mark McLellan, UNT’s vice-president for research and innovation.

Close-up of the seal of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)

Some US universities now hold regular meetings with local FBI representatives.Credit: Mark Reinstein/Corbis/Getty

Forging such ties makes sense, says Toby Smith, vice-president for policy at the Association of American Universities (AAU) in Washington DC. “There’s always concern that they could get things wrong, but if they’re talking to each other and working together, the likelihood is significantly reduced,” he says.

Agent for hire

The University of South Alabama in Mobile went a step further: in September, it hired David Furman, a retired FBI agent specializing in economic espionage and counter-intelligence, as its director of information technology and risk compliance. Furman writes that he has been speaking one-on-one to faculty members, who now view him “as a resource, as opposed to a ‘threat’ to their research productivity”.

Universities are also changing guidelines for travel. The University of South Alabama has revised guidelines for international visitors, and UNT is considering imposing restrictions on travel to “certain known foreign entities where technology may be compromised”, according to McLellan. Washington State University vice-president of research Christopher Keane writes that the institution is asking faculty members to take “appropriate precautions when travelling with technology internationally”.

In response to Nature’s questions, Melur Ramasubramanian, vice-president of research at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, pointed to university resources available to researchers. Those include a web page on how to deal with concerns about foreign influence, and another outlining the university’s policies on research integrity. The latter includes a phone number for people who want to report information anonymously. The university also has an e-mail address specifically for questions about disclosure of foreign ties or potential conflicts, he notes.

Nature also asked the vice-presidents what support they needed to ensure that researchers comply with disclosure rules. Several said that universities are struggling to reconcile differences between reporting requirements from various agencies. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s Joint Committee on the Research Environment, which includes leaders from the major science-funding agencies, is heading an effort to harmonize those policies, but has yet to issue guidelines.

And questions remain about what exactly counts as a conflict of interest, and how universities should react in various situations — for example, when receiving anonymous complaints, says Ramasubramanian.

Another issue raised by the government crackdown is the concern that researchers of Chinese descent are being unfairly targeted, along with some foreign researchers more generally. Roger Wakimoto, vice-chancellor for research at the University of California, Los Angeles, was the only respondent to address this in his reply to Nature: his university sent a memo to faculty members emphasizing that it does not tolerate racial profiling.

Pressure rising

The responses come as a series of cases ratchet up the pressure on administrators. One high-profile example is the arrest in January of Charles Lieber, a chemist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who is charged with making false statements to the US government about his alleged participation in a talent programme in China, through which he was to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars of research funding.

His arrest in particular has helped to convince scientists and administrators of the importance of reporting requirements, said Mary Sue Coleman, president of the AAU, at a meeting convened last month to discuss the threat China poses to the United States across sectors. “That has done more to help than anything abstract that we could possibly have done,” she said. But the fear of prosecution could also have a chilling effect on researchers’ willingness to report outside income. “There has been talk about a grace period or some sort of leniency or reduced penalty for past offenders who come forward,” writes David Conover, vice-president of research and innovation at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

One thing is clear: the issue is not going away. The FBI currently has about 1,000 open cases related to intellectual-property theft involving China. John Brown, assistant director of the counter-intelligence division of the FBI, said at last month’s meeting about China and the United States: “The US has not faced a similar threat like this since the Soviet Union and the cold war.”

Nature 579, 331 (2020)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-00646-9

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