In April, Nature reported on the rules and regulations that U.S. universities and researchers must adhere to when reporting foreign financing and collaborations. While new, these rules do not represent a significant change from the past. U.S. funding agencies have required grantees to report funding from foreign sources for some time. What has changed is that since 2018, penalties — and, in some cases, criminal charges — have been more frequently imposed on scientists who failed to report foreign activities. Most cases involved funding from the Chinese government, and the arrest or censure of many scientists of Chinese descent. Rightfully so, concerns were expressed by the scientific community that these actions amounted to racial profiling.
In 2019, the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) launched an effort to clarify and strengthen national policies on research security by issuing a unified set of guidelines for universities to create teams devoted to all aspects of research security, including cybersecurity and export controls. These teams also provide training for faculty members in these areas and those who are considering participating in foreign talent programs that recruit and fund researchers for their expertise. Funding agencies were instructed to establish ways to vet foreign visitors. Along with the NSTC guidelines and memorandum, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) included some broad research security requirements, such as federal agencies must have disclosure rules, and that the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) must ensure the rules are consistent across agencies.
The NSTC report was issued just days before President Biden was sworn in. On May 28, geneticist Eric Lander was confirmed by the Senate as the next director of OSTP, so follow-through on NSTC guidelines may be getting traction soon. In February, several university groups, including the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and the Association of American Universities, 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 April 5, a response has not been received. It is still unclear how the new administration will approach the concerns of universities and scientists.
Nonetheless, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has moved ahead and is now asking for copies of contracts or agreements with foreign institutions when applying for or submitting updates on existing grants. The implementation of these changes has been delayed until January 25, 2022. The agency is also requiring scientists to certify by electronic signature that the information submitted in applications about foreign funding is accurate.
Few would argue the importance of preventing foreign espionage and intellectual theft on university campuses. However, universities are speaking out against overly burdensome regulations. In addition, immigration of thousands of students and scholars — which has been critically important to science and innovation — has come under threat in this country. There is no question that immigration of highly skilled scientists increases the economic, intellectual, moral, and public health of this country.
As AAU President Barbara R. Snyder recently stated: “We are pleased that President Biden has proposed a path for the best and brightest from around the world to stay and continue to contribute to our nation after finishing their graduate studies in the United States.” She adds that Congress must act now on implementing long-term immigration reform that will keep home-grown talent while attracting the world’s best and brightest scholars.
I ended last month’s Research Matters with the AAU’s recommendations for strengthening American higher education through opportunity, accountability, equity and inclusion, and safety. With the President’s proposed investment in research and ongoing congressional hearings supporting a stronger research budget, coupled with the acknowledgement of the importance of international science, the research community is ready for a research ramp-up.