US pushed to ease restrictions on global scientific exchange

As global talent shifts, National Academies experts warn nation increasingly has more to gain than lose in a less restrictive atmosphere

September 29, 2022
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The US should shift its tactics on research security to better reflect the increasing reality that the nation receives as well as gives in global scientific exchange, an expert assessment has concluded.

Long-standing federal policy in the US largely treats the threat of foreign espionage in research as a matter to be managed by identifying sensitive technologies and then restricting them from being shared.

A better approach, according to the experts assembled by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, would involve more holistic assessments that identify specific potential misuses while taking into account the overall value of maintaining and encouraging global scientific exchanges.

That involves accepting risk when warranted, and trusting the ability of US scientists and policymakers to respond effectively when necessary, said the co-chair of the NAS panel, Patrick Gallagher, the chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh.

“You have to have something worth protecting, and sometimes the advantages of the United States are about moving faster,” Professor Gallagher said.

Professor Gallagher’s 10-member committee was formed early last year, as the Biden administration was starting to recalibrate US research security policy after years of a Trump-era approach characterised by punishing academic scientists with ties to China.

The Biden team later announced it was abandoning the China crackdown, regarding it as counterproductive on balance, and instead would provide academic scientists with a unified set of rules and forms for reporting their overseas affiliations.

The damage caused by the Trump approach was set out in a new analysis by the Asian American Scholar Forum that counted nearly 1,500 academic scientists switching their addresses last year from the US to China – a 23 per cent increase from the previous year. “The fear among Chinese-origin scientists is palpable, and the US runs a high risk of losing talent,” a member of the forum’s board, Xihong Lin, said in outlining the findings.

The NAS is the nation’s federally chartered national scientific academy, and its review was aimed more at identifying a big-picture approach to improving and balancing research security policy. It was asked to weigh options for restricting scientific exchange, with particular attention to the fast-growing fields of synthetic biology, artificial intelligence and microelectronics.

Professor Gallagher’s co-chair was Susan Gordon, a deputy director of national intelligence in the Trump administration. Their fellow members were mostly academic scientists.

The panel issued only four recommendations, led by the idea that the president should issue an executive order clearly affirming a US policy of allowing fundamental research to remain unrestricted to the maximum extent possible. That should be accompanied, the experts said, by an interagency process to create the definition of an open research environment.

“We’ve never defined what an open research environment is, and yet it provide enormous advantages to the United States,” Professor Gallagher said. The idea, he said, was to avoid “an accumulation of small controls that have the net effect of turning open research environments into restricted ones”.

The preferred new outlook, the panel said, means getting away from listing “critical technologies” that must be protected. The problem with that mindset, Professor Gallagher said, is that it cuts the US out of global scientific exchange before it’s clear that scientists abroad won’t have useful contributions.

“A much more useful starting point”, he said, “is to define what those threats are, and then define strategies to mitigate them – not start with listing technologies.”

The panel also called on US research funders to think more about ways of being more attractive to overseas scientists and craft their grant programmes accordingly.

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