US to unify grant application disclosures after Lieber conviction

Biden administration promises simplification long sought by research universities

January 5, 2022
Woman signing document and hand holding pen putting signature at paper
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The White House has issued long-awaited guidance to federal research grant agencies giving them four months to draft a unified set of rules and forms for scientists to report their overseas affiliations.

The Biden administration acted two weeks after a high-profile court case in which a prominent Harvard University professor, Charles Lieber, was convicted of lying to government officials about his work in China.

The chief White House science adviser, Eric Lander – a professor at both Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – said that the new guidelines were necessary to deter real espionage while avoiding the racism of an overly aggressive approach that traps well-intentioned scientists.

“The research security challenges we face are real and serious,” Professor Lander said in announcing the order, which began taking shape in the Trump administration. “At the same time, if our policies to address those actions significantly diminish our superpower of attracting global scientific talent – or if they fuel xenophobia against Asian Americans – we will have done more damage to ourselves than any competitor or adversary could.”

The move was quickly embraced by the association of leading US research universities, which has been pleading for years for the government to adopt uniform reporting requirements across agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

Key elements of the administration’s order, according to the 66-member Association of American Universities, include the introduction of the standardised reporting forms and requirements for the federal grant agencies to accept tools such as electronic CVs and standards for permanently identifying online documents.

Those advances, the AAU said, will “make compliance easier and less complicated for researchers”.

The Lieber case was among hundreds of instances in which government officials in the Trump administration suspected academic scientists working with US grant money of failing to fully disclose simultaneous support from foreign funders, usually China. His was among about two dozen of those cases that led to criminal prosecutions.

The full pattern behind those cases is not yet clear, because few have reached the point of trials, although confusion about federal reporting processes and requirements appears widespread. The first such defendant to reach trial, Anming Hu of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, had his case thrown out by a federal judge who saw no intent to deceive anyone in his grant disclosure paperwork.

Professor Lieber did admit trying to hide the foreign money he received alongside his NIH support, although the nanotechnology expert was not accused of espionage and his defenders attributed his deception to his fear of his work being sidetracked by the political climate in the US surrounding research ties to China. Top NIH officials and federal prosecutors also acknowledged that the government had put a greatly disproportionate share of its investigative attention toward paperwork disclosure violations involving China, even as they claimed the effort to be concerned largely with avoiding funding duplications.

The order announced by Professor Lander, as head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, gives federal research agencies 120 days to jointly develop a single set of grant application forms and instructions that they will all use.

“Clearly laying out the required information will ease administrative burdens on the research community,” he said. “And it will also enable software developers to make tools to enable researchers to populate digital CVs from which they can readily export relevant information.”

The Office of Science and Technology Policy has not said how soon it expects the new grant application system to be fully implemented by the funding agencies, or what guidelines will govern the use of information disclosed through them.

In a separate administration action to encourage international participation in US higher education, the US State Department has ended a Trump-era policy of requiring that overseas student visa application reviews include an assessment of whether the student ultimately intends to remain in the US beyond the planned period of study.

The department is also extending through 2022 a general waiver of requirements for in-person visa interviews. It is, however, proposing increases of more than 50 per cent in the cost of student visa application fees.

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