Report finds holes in U.S. policies on foreign influence in research

A new report by a congressional watchdog says U.S. agencies need to flesh out and clarify their policies for monitoring the foreign ties of the researchers they fund.

The report, by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), is likely to spur efforts in Congress aimed at preventing China and other nations from using funding and other connections to gain improper access to research funded by the U.S. government. But at least one of the agencies under scrutiny—the National Science Foundation (NSF)—is pushing back on the idea that its policies are lax. It is warning that tougher rules could hinder its ability to fund the best science.

The GAO report was requested by Senator Chuck Grassley (R–IA), chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, who in hearings has prodded research agencies to “pick up their game” when it comes to preventing improper foreign influence. It examines the practices of the government’s five biggest funders of academic research: the National Institutes of Health (NIH), NSF, NASA, the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Department of Defense (DOD). The report recommends they adopt explicit and uniform policies on what grantees need to do to comply with federal laws relating to three issues:

  • financial conflicts of interest (CoI);
  • nonfinancial conflicts that include unrealistic time commitments or duplication of research; and
  • disclosure of all sources of research funding, both foreign and domestic.

Although all five agencies have disclosure policies, the GAO report says DOD and DOE lack an agencywide financial CoI policy. None of the agencies defines or asks grantees to describe potential nonfinancial conflicts. Those gaps and ambiguities, GAO concludes, have led to “incomplete or inaccurate information from researchers that … impede the agency’s ability to assess conflicts that could lead to foreign influence.”

GAO also chides the outgoing administration for failing to deliver long-promised guidance that is being developed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in an interagency process begun nearly 2 years ago. “Most agencies are waiting for the issuance of OSTP’s guidance before they update their policies,” the report notes, adding that the delay has deprived them of “timely information needed to fully address the threats.”

Why they want to know

Grassley asked GAO to focus on foreign influences over researchers working in the United States who receive federal funds. So GAO honed in on the lack of federal policies explicitly designed to detect efforts by foreign entities to game the traditionally open U.S. research enterprise, say, by telling grantees to keep mum about the relationship or by trying to shape the direction of the research.

But agency officials say upholding research integrity consists of more than just learning about who else might be funding someone applying for a grant. For example, NSF says its disclosure policies are designed to obtain a wide range of information that helps the agency with its grantmaking. Knowing such things as an applicant’s background, collaborators, and access to relevant resources helps NSF make better decisions on who to fund, explains Rebecca Keiser, NSF’s chief of research security strategy and policy. And every bit of information is useful: “All means all” sources, she emphasizes.

In contrast, Keiser says, NSF’s policy governing conflicts of interest is meant to ensure the results of the funded research have not been skewed because of any number of outside factors. The most obvious are financial conflicts, in which a scientist stands to profit from the outcome.

But there are also nonfinancial conflicts that could sway the results. One example is when a researcher takes on more work than they can handle. That overbooking is called a conflict of commitment. The researcher’s institution is the arbiter of whether any particular relationship—such as with a company or foreign university—crosses the line, Keiser adds, and how the problem should be resolved.

As federal officials press for more reporting rules on potential foreign influence, it’s important that they not conflate conflict of interest and conflict of commitment policies, Keiser says, a point NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan emphasized in a four-page written response to the GAO report. “Not every foreign relationship represents a conflict of commitment,” Keiser says. “And we wanted to make that clear to GAO.”

“We look at disclosures to determine capacity and potential overlapping research,” she continues. “We want investigators to be comfortable disclosing any connection that bears on their work, without fear that it will automatically be labeled a conflict.”

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