White House plans campus talks to settle US research espionage rules

Trump adviser plans multi-agency tour of universities confused by crackdown

September 17, 2019
Source: Getty

The Trump administration has outlined plans to consult with universities over its growing crackdown on foreign-born scientists, which many top academic leaders have faulted as excessive and frustratingly opaque.

The top White House science adviser, Kelvin K. Droegemeier, in an open letter to US university leaders published on 17 September, promised that teams of federal officials will visit some of their campuses in coming months to jointly craft guidelines for improving “research security”.

The process is aimed at creating and clarifying policies that will “protect our research assets in a manner balanced with the openness and international collaboration that have been so critical to our success” in the sciences, Dr Droegemeier wrote.

The White House promise follows months of escalating tensions, as the Trump administration has taken various steps designed to thwart research-related foreign espionage, while universities have complained about a lack of clarity on what exactly is being prohibited.

Examples of the heightened federal activity include tougher visa policies affecting foreign scholars, bans on US government officials collaborating with some foreign researchers, stricter enforcement of rules on US universities obtaining foreign funds, and investigations of inadequate funding disclosures by individual scientists that have led to several dismissals from US universities of faculty with foreign ties.

US university leaders, while uncertain about the likely end point of the campus meetings, regard the initiative as positive. “We welcome it,” said Tobin L. Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities, which represents the nation’s leading research institutions.

Dr Droegemeier, in an interview with Times Higher Education, said that he remained committed to the idea that US scientists should be allowed to share non-classified research findings openly with counterparts globally.

Yet Dr Droegemeier, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and a former vice-president for research and professor of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma, said that he was not ready to describe exactly what boundaries the administration wants to set.

He expressed particular concern about foreign government-sponsored talent recruitment campaigns. In that area, the administration has been especially wary of China’s decade-old Thousand Talents Programme, which it regards as a conduit for ethnic Chinese researchers to be financed by both the Chinese and US governments.

Such dual funding arrangements may remain acceptable in some circumstances, Dr Droegemeier says in his letter to university leaders. “However,” he tells them, “it has become clear that features of some talent programmes are unacceptable and inconsistent with our research values and research principles.”

As he has in the past, Dr Droegemeier portrayed US demands for more robust disclosure of scientists’ foreign funding as partly a matter of fiscal accountability, to guard against US taxpayers sponsoring a project that another government or government agency has already financed.

But he stopped short of identifying exactly what other behaviours – beyond scientists being paid twice for the same work – he anticipated the government blocking through a more robust system of researchers reporting their foreign sources of money.

He spoke instead of his hope that officials from various federal agencies will use the upcoming series of meetings to learn directly from the US university research community how the government can better “protect our research assets” while minimising the administrative burden on scientists, universities and funding agencies.

A chief value of the planned series of campus meetings, said Mr Smith of the AAU, is the opportunity for the institutions to clear up ambiguities and possible contradictions by hearing directly from all federal agencies involved in research-related threats.

Some lawmakers in Congress already have been working to pass legislation – backed by research universities – that would require such coordination, he said.


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