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US universities call for clearer rules on science espionage amid China crackdown

As the National Institutes of Health begins implementing Trump-era guidelines, researchers voice concerns over transparency and racial profiling.
Exterior view of the main building of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD, US

In May, the NIH will begin requiring scientists applying for grants to submit copies of any contracts or agreements they have with foreign institutions.Credit: Grandbrothers/Alamy

The US government is converging on a long-awaited set of rules designed to protect American science from theft by foreign spies. A series of announcements this year describe steps that US universities and researchers must take when reporting foreign financing and collaborations to US science funders.

But university groups say they need more clarity on how to implement the rules. And the guidelines do not spell out how institutions can address concerns of racial profiling sparked by the US government’s crackdown on foreign interference in recent years.

The issue of foreign influence and interference in US research has loomed large as geopolitical tensions between the United States and China have risen. The new guidelines date back to the last days of former US president Donald Trump’s administration; so far, President Joe Biden’s administration has not indicated that it will seek to change the policies and that it is open to feedback.

Before he left office in January, Trump issued a memorandum describing the US government’s responsibility to protect the country’s research. Simultaneously, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) published research security guidelines for universities and funding agencies. And in March, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced new requirements for information that scientists applying for grants must disclose — becoming the first US agency to act on OSTP’s guidelines.

Together, the announcements represent a turning point. For years, US funding agencies have required grantees to flag funding from foreign sources. Since 2018, however, the government has more frequently imposed penalties, and sometimes pressed criminal charges, on scientists who breach that requirement. Under this increased scrutiny, university administrators called for clearer rules on what scientists must disclose, including better definitions of conflicts of interest. And because most cases involved funding from the Chinese government, and the arrest or censure of many scientists of Chinese descent, some researchers voiced concerns that the actions amounted to racial profiling. It is illegal in the United States to target people because of their racial or ethnic background.

University leaders hoped that the OSTP project, launched in 2019, would address some of these concerns by presenting a unified set of guidelines.

This year’s series of announcements “is a first step down that road, and that is positive”, says Tobin Smith, vice-president for science policy and global affairs at the Association of American Universities (AAU) in Washington DC. But the AAU and other groups hope the requirements will be fine-tuned. “We would still seek additional clarity to even make it more well-defined,” says Smith.

Guidelines delivered

The OSTP guidelines, drafted by the National Science and Technology Council Joint Committee on the Research Environment (JCORE), suggest that universities create teams devoted to all aspects of research security, with members who are experts on cybersecurity and export controls; set penalties for violators; and provide training for faculty members who are considering participating in foreign “talent programs” that recruit and fund researchers for their expertise. One such programme is China’s Thousand Talents Plan.

Trump’s companion memorandum instructed funding agencies to establish ways to vet foreign visitors, and to limit participation of US government employees in talent programmes.

The memorandum also told government agencies to share with each other information that raises concerns about grantees. That worries Roger Wakimoto, vice-chancellor for research at the University of California, Los Angeles, because it could unfairly cast suspicion on scientists. “I think a person is innocent until proven guilty,” he says.

In the same month the OSTP guidelines and memorandum were published, US Congress voted into law some broad requirements — that federal agencies must have disclosure rules, and that the OSTP must ensure the rules are consistent across agencies — in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), an annual defence policy bill.

But meeting all the requirements might be too expensive for some smaller universities, says Deborah Altenburg, associate vice-president for research policy and government affairs at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) in Washington DC. She hopes that the items are viewed as recommendations and not “a checklist of things that every university should do”.

The timing of the memorandum and JCORE report, arriving days before Biden was sworn in, has caused some confusion. Kelvin Droegemeier, who led the OSTP under Trump, hosted presentations with universities about the US government’s position on foreign collaborations throughout 2020. “But then there was no follow-through when the report came out” because of the administration change, says Altenburg. In February, several university groups, including the APLU and the AAU, sent a letter to the Biden administration asking for a public comment period to air their views on the report, which is typical before major agency announcements. As of 5 April, they had not received a response.

Droegemeier declined to comment to Nature about the timing of the announcements. The US Senate has not yet confirmed Biden’s pick for OSTP director, geneticist Eric Lander.

Guidelines deployed

But one agency is already pressing ahead with changes suggested by the JCORE report. In a notice released in March, the NIH for the first time asks scientists to include copies of contracts or agreements with any foreign institutions, including a translation of the original documents if they are not in English, when applying for grants or submitting updates on existing ones. In another first, the agency is requiring scientists to certify by electronic signature that the information they’ve submitted in their applications about foreign funding is accurate.

Wakimoto believes the addition of the signature box could ultimately be useful. “If it was me, I would pause and say, ‘Okay, did I really fill this out truthfully? Did I miss something?’”

NIH’s new requirements take effect in May, ahead of two major submission deadlines for grants. Universities and researchers could struggle to meet this deadline, says Kristin West, director of research ethics and compliance at the Council on Governmental Relations, based in Washington DC. Some contracts might contain non-disclosure or confidentiality clauses, she explains, which would need to be navigated for the first time, in addition to getting translations.

Concerns of racial profiling

In March, the Biden administration indicated how it might deal with research security issues. OSTP staff member Aaron Miles, one of the authors of the JCORE report, said at a presentation to the National Science, Technology, and Security Roundtable hosted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, that Trump’s memorandum “is government policy, and we are moving forward with implementation”.

Any change to the executive action is always an option, Miles, who is principal assistant director of national security and international public policy at the OSTP, told Nature. A sitting president is able to change past executive orders and memoranda swiftly and without congressional approval.

Activists in Washington, DC, participate in a rally to protect Asians from violence

Activists participate in a Washington DC rally in March after a gunman killed eight people, including six Asian women, in Georgia.Credit: Alex Wong/Getty

The January NDAA legislation directs the OSTP to unify disclosure requirements across agencies. Miles says the office seeks to reduce any additional burden from the rules, and to hear input from those affected by the new policies as they roll out.

It is still unclear how the new administration will approach concerns of scientists of Asian descent that they are being racially profiled by US research security efforts.

In January, civil-rights groups called on the Biden administration to shut down the Trump administration’s China Initiative, launched in 2018 by the Department of Justice to prevent theft of US intellectual property by the Chinese government. The groups said the programme “has greatly increased the targeting and profiling of Asian Americans and immigrants, particularly those of Chinese descent who are working in science and technology”.

A mass shooting in March brought new attention to anti-Asian racism in the United States, when a gunman killed eight people, including six Asian women, in and around Atlanta, Georgia. Civil-rights groups have seen a spike in incidents of anti-Asian violence over the past year. These acts have temporarily overshadowed concerns of racial profiling in the context of research security, says Wakimoto. Anti-Asian sentiment in the United States is “just so bad right now”.

Updates & Corrections

  • Update 06 April 2021: This story was updated to include comments from the OSTP.

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