What the Senate’s foreign interference report means for higher ed

Expert Insight

What the Senate’s foreign interference report means for higher ed

This insight was co-authored by Jackson Nell

The Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs’ Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released its much-anticipated staff report “Threats to the U.S. Research Enterprise: China’s Talent Recruitment Plans” on Monday night. The report details the committee’s investigation into how China exploits US taxpayer-funded research to grow its own science and technology prowess.

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recommendations to address policy shortcomings in the Senate's foreign interference report
recommendations to address policy shortcomings in the Senate’s foreign interference report

As expected, the report detailed several cases of Chinese interference in the US research enterprise and maps how talent recruitment programs facilitate the transfer of intellectual property (IP) and innovation from US research institutions to China. The report then outlines what actions the federal government has taken to counter this threat and proposes 14 recommendations to address shortcomings in existing policies.

The report pulls no punches in naming and shaming the various stakeholders who failed to better protect US interests, innovation, and research integrity values. The blame is placed on:

  • Federal funding agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF) for inconsistent standards and enforcement measures
  • Cabinet-level agencies, such as the Department of Commerce, for not doing enough to recognize and curb talent recruitment anomalies
  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for not taking definitive action and warning universities early enough about the ongoing threats targeting their work

Universities, for the most part, were spared most of the scrutiny, instead being positioned as victims upholding values of open science and lacking means to respond appropriately. That said, the report included several recommendations that, if adopted by the federal government, would have direct and significant implications on how universities monitor and support faculty-driven research moving forward. The most impactful recommendations for higher education are listed below.

Selected recommendations from the Senate subcommittee report

The US research community should establish a “Know Your Collaborator” culture (Recommendation #6)

The report recommends that universities monitor research collaborations with foreign nationals and determine if those relationships adhere to US scientific values and integrity standards. Most research universities already have some reviews in place, such as conflict of interest and commitment forms and university-to-university memoranda of understandings. But without going into specifics, the report suggests a broader mandate that extends to reading into a collaborator’s “research intent.”

Research intent: what do they stand to gain from this work and could it be used to accelerate another country’s research.

Such a subjective mandate poses large-scale threats to academic freedom while also adding a complex, unfunded compliance mandate to an already-overburdened research office, despite the report’s acknowledgment elsewhere that universities lack adequate resources. Should federal agencies adopt such a mandate, how they choose to define it and who they expect to enforce it will greatly affect university research administration.

US grant-making agencies should implement a compliance and auditing program to ensure grantees accurately report conflicts of interest and conflicts of commitment (Recommendation #7)

While the previous recommendation includes a line about universities policing researchers’ conflict of interest and commitment, Recommendation #7 focuses on how the funding agencies should be responsible for reviewing reported (and unreported) conflicts of interest and commitment. The report calls out NIH compliance auditing policies as a model while criticizing NSF for relying solely on an inspector general.

Universities may experience increased scrutiny as different agencies “catch up” to a new standard of review.

If such a practice were adopted, a greater burden would fall to the agencies—though the report recommends providing additional resources to execute the mandate. The implication for universities may be a short-term burden of increased scrutiny as different agencies “catch up” to a new standard of review. But with the potential of unified policies across agencies, this burden could decline over time. However, it remains uncertain if Congress and the Trump administration will appropriate sufficient funds for this purpose. This could potentially pressure agencies to either continue outsourcing reviews or shifting funds away from other essential activities to carry the investigations out.   

The administration should consider updating NSDD-189 and implement additional, limited restrictions on US government funded fundamental research (Recommendation #11)

In 1985, National Security Decision Directive 189 (NSDD-189) affirmed the US government’s commitment to the open access of basic research, enshrining academic freedom and public information exchange as core pillars of the US research enterprise. The report recommends changing this policy by adding some access controls on basic research in sensitive subject matters.

While the report does not elaborate on what types of basic research should be guarded, it advises federal funding agencies to do more to protect the “nation’s interest” when determining what research can be shared openly. Universities may have to limit what federally funded fundamental research they can freely publish and share to comply with any changes to NSDD-189. This would disrupt many facets of university research, including faculty promotion and tenure, graduate student programs, and lab facility security as well as exacerbate broader compliance uncertainty.

Unlike many other policies, national security decision directives can be modified by the president at their unilateral discretion and can be kept classified to prevent university input. President Trump may choose to amend or repeal NSDD-189 to allow more access restrictions on sensitive fundamental research going forward, forcing universities to rethink their approach to some basic research projects.

US grant-making agencies should work with research institutions to ensure they have the necessary cybersecurity practices in place to reduce the risk of research data misappropriation (Recommendation #13)

The report suggests that universities “periodically demonstrate that they are adhering to cybersecurity best practices.”

Although cybersecurity is not new to research universities, the complexity of safeguarding against direct and indirect foreign threats elevated this concern to the Senate subcommittee. The report does not provide much detail on what specific cybersecurity practices should be adopted, but it does suggest universities “periodically demonstrate that they are adhering to cybersecurity best practices,” which suggests future guidance around data standards, access rules, and reporting requirements.

Such guidance has been on the table since the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) published standards governing controlled unclassified information (CUI). These standards have been viewed as the eventual baseline requirement for most if not all data acquired through federally funded research, which would impose a significant compliance burden on universities across research terrains.

Grant-making agencies should not award US funding to participants of foreign talent recruitment programs absent full disclosure of the terms and conditions of membership in any talent recruitment program (Recommendation #14)

“Such programs include any foreign-state-sponsored attempt to acquire US scientific-funded research or technology through foreign government-run or funded recruitment programs that target scientists, engineers, academics, researchers, and entrepreneurs of all nationalities working or educated in the United States.”

The DOE’s definition of foreign talent recruitment programs

The report lauds the Department of Energy’s (DOE) definition of foreign talent recruitment programs as an example that could be adopted by other agencies, defining foreign talent recruitment programs as “such programs include any foreign-state-sponsored attempt to acquire US scientific-funded research or technology through foreign government-run or funded recruitment programs that target scientists, engineers, academics, researchers, and entrepreneurs of all nationalities working or educated in the United States”.

While many nations operate these programs, the report focuses on those developed by China, especially the Thousand Talents Program (TTP). The report recommends denying any federal research funding to individuals who take part in these programs barring sufficient disclosure requirements and use conditions can be guaranteed. DOE’s decision to prohibit their staff and grantees from joining talent recruitment programs this year serves as an example of what the report seeks from all federal agencies.

Banning participation in talent recruitment programs could directly impact many university faculty, researchers, and students who currently receive or desire to receive federal funding. Existing awards may need to be modified or terminated depending on the conditions of such a ban. Moving forward, we may see more agencies clarify their policy on talent recruitment programs and potentially see Congress and/or the Trump administration mandate a government-wide ban on talent recruitment programs in federal sponsored research.