NSF seeks to tackle foreign partnership fears

US grant agency hopes to ensure a more scientific approach after years of political battles over risks of China collaborations

August 23, 2023
US and China fans talking at the start of the Women's World Cup final to illustrate NSF seeks to tackle foreign partnership fears
Source: Getty Images

The US National Science Foundation is making a concerted effort to resolve high-stakes debates over US research security by creating a formal network of scientists to study the best ways of handling the problem.

As both Republicans and Democrats in the US grow increasingly antagonistic towards China and other countries they regard with suspicion, the NSF initiative aims to precisely identify and study the threat to the US from foreign misuse of the nation’s research enterprise.

“At NSF, we’re very data-driven,” Rebecca Keiser, the NSF’s chief of research security strategy and policy, said in announcing the plan. “And so what we wanted to do was explore what was occurring here.”

The idea follows years of rising complaints from politicians and national security officials aimed at the US research community over perceptions that Chinese partners are stealing ideas of economic and military value. University leaders generally have acknowledged the concern but argued that the collaborations provide the US with a net benefit.

Such disagreements grew especially confrontational during the Trump administration, when the FBI opened thousands of investigations into people with Chinese ties, arresting some and convincing many others to leave US universities.

The Biden administration ended that prosecutorial approach but has remained critical of China and wary of scientific partnerships. Among other positions, the current administration appears content to allow the expiration this coming week of a major US-China science and technology cooperation agreement that has existed since 1979.

The anti-China sentiment appears even stronger on Capitol Hill. Among the more recent examples, Republicans on a new House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party have proposed legislation that would force college and university endowments and foundations to end any investments in China.

The NSF has an $11 billion (£9 billion) annual budget for funding scientific research. Its new efforts on global research security will have two main components: a Research Program on Research Security that will offer individual grants to study foreign research risks, and a data collection and sharing organisation called Safeguarding the Entire Community in the US Research Ecosystem, or Secure, that will work with about $10 million in annual funding.

The first component, said an adviser on the project, Kelvin Droegemeier, bears similarities to the “science of science policy” initiative of the George W. Bush administration, in which expert teams across various disciplines studied the optimal uses of federal research investment.

In this new version, said Dr Droegemeier, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Trump administration, “you might have sociologists, might have psychologists, you might have engineers, you might have technologists, you might have international relations experts, and so on, that would come together in a way that they’ve never done before”.

The planned second component of the NSF initiative, agency officials said, consists of a clearing house-type organisation that, among other things, would help universities and their researchers better understand the risks that are known to exist and the ways that the government would like them to respond.

That lack of information has been a chronic complaint from universities, especially during the crackdown of the Trump administration. The new centre won’t provide “direct advice,” Dr Droegemeier said, but its resources could be especially helpful to smaller institutions – including many minority-serving campuses – that lack the staff capacity to provide their scientists with the necessary tools to navigate the challenges of foreign partnerships.


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