China fears could feed broader US clampdown on research sharing

Senator suggests that universities might want to keep more of their findings to themselves

May 15, 2019
US Congress
Source: iStock

Concerns about theft of intellectual property by China could lead to a broader clampdown on dissemination of US universities’ research findings.

Chuck Grassley, the chair of the US Senate’s Finance Committee, is leading an effort to push federal funding agencies to explain how they are preventing “potential foreign actors” and “foreign threats” from acquiring research findings.

That campaign already has led to the expulsion of three Asian scientists from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center over concerns that they did not disclose foreign ties and had violated the confidentiality of the peer review process.

But Grassley aides described the senator’s work as taking no firm position on the key question of whether and to what degree the academic ideal of universal sharing must exclude scientists from outside the US.

As such, one Grassley aide said, the senator was currently characterising his effort as a general matter of helping and encouraging US universities and their scientists to keep their government-financed work to themselves.

Some researchers, the aide said, “given the hard work and the dedication that they bring to the job, they want some of that information to remain in-house until they finalise what they’re doing”.

Universities can and should make similar determinations, even if the project is not classified, said the Grassley aide, who declined to be identified by name.

Such a position is counter to the official policies of the leading federal agencies distributing basic research funding, which generally want to see the universal sharing of research discoveries without any intentional delays. The National Institutes of Health says it expects a “timely” release of data, while the National Science Foundation wants dissemination done “promptly”.

Although US policymakers have been reluctant to publicly renounce such agency policies, they appear increasingly fretful as more authoritarian governments – especially China – move to restrict their own scientific sharing.

China last year issued regulations on its domestic scientific data that are designed to limit their export while increasing their sharing among scientists within the country.

An FBI agent, Edward You, told researchers at this month’s annual policy conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that US researchers’ continued widespread sharing of scientific findings could become dangerous “if we’re the only ones doing it”.

Although US universities are likely to be resistant to any limitations on research dissemination that might develop out of Mr Grassley’s efforts, they should be aware that the senator has a record of success: his investigation into unreported payments to medical researchers by pharmaceutical companies led to the introduction of tough new legislation in this area in 2010.

US lawmakers are pursuing a variety of measures aimed at reducing Chinese academic influence and standing in the US. One leading bill, called the Protect Our Universities Act, would create a task force within the Department of Education to monitor foreign students and keep them away from research projects regarded as sensitive.

US universities and their faculty have shown a range of reactions towards such political concerns, with administrators often more willing to accept government judgements about the risks. However, they appear to be growing more sceptical about federal proscriptions as security-minded policymakers make increasingly clear that they are looking beyond science with overt military and corporate applications, and expanding their focus into areas of basic research that have long been understood as open for worldwide sharing.

Acknowledging the difficulty of finding the proper balance, the Grassley aide said the senator – while urging tougher scrutiny by federal funding agencies – was not yet ready to propose any legislative solutions.

“We are in an ongoing fact-finding endeavour,” the aide said.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Worries about foreign actors in the US could feed broader clampdown on research sharing

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