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DOE bars its researchers from participating in rival nations’ talent programs

20 June 2019

The policy is one of several federal government efforts to stem exploitation of US research.

DOE headquarters.
Department of Energy headquarters in Washington, DC. Credit: Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress

The US Department of Energy has implemented a directive that prohibits its personnel from participating in talent recruitment programs operated by certain foreign countries. Though the 7 June document does not list specific countries, DOE officials have said the policy is currently limited to four: China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia. The new policy is one of several actions federal agencies are taking in response to alleged exploitation of the US research environment by foreign governments, particularly China.

The FBI and some congressional lawmakers have increasingly sought to discourage researchers from participating in talent recruitment programs, alleging foreign governments use them to misappropriate US-funded research and advance their rival strategic interests. Federal scrutiny of the programs has even led to arrests, including in cases that do not involve allegations of research misappropriation. In May a materials scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Turab Lookman, pleaded not guilty to making false statements about his application and acceptance to China’s Thousand Talents Program. Last year climate researcher Chunzai Wang agreed to plead guilty to accepting funds from Chinese recruitment programs while employed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Although such arrests are uncommon, they have contributed to an increasingly tense atmosphere pervaded by concerns about overzealous enforcement and the instigation of bias against Chinese and Chinese American researchers. For their part, federal officials have repeatedly stated they are not engaging in racial profiling and want to balance their efforts with maintaining a climate of openness in science. The issue has swiftly become one of the most pressing in science policy. Kelvin Droegemeier, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, has observed that university presidents consistently tell him it is one of their “highest priority topics.”

Present and future policies

When DOE first announced its intent to restrict participation in talent programs earlier this year, it indicated the policy would apply to all employees and contractor personnel as well as to grant recipients and individuals in cooperative agreements. The new directive applies to employees and most contractors, including scientists in the department’s 17 national laboratories, and to members of its external advisory committees. A separate policy covering university-based grantees is expected to follow later.

The DOE directive defines a talent recruitment program as “any foreign-state-sponsored attempt to acquire US scientific-funded research or technology through foreign government-run or funded recruitment programs that target scientists, engineers, academics, researchers, and entrepreneurs of all nationalities working or educated in the United States.”

The agency is most concerned about programs that compensate researchers who are also employed at US research facilities or receiving DOE research funds. Compensation can take many forms, including “cash, research funding, honorific titles, career advancement opportunities, promised future compensation, or other types of remuneration or consideration,” the directive states. DOE’s counterintelligence office is charged with maintaining a list of specific programs of concern.

In addition to prohibiting participation in talent programs, DOE is planning to restrict international collaboration on certain “emerging research areas and technologies.” That policy will establish a “risk matrix” that matches specific countries to technical areas in which work with them will be prohibited.

Speaking to the Advanced Scientific Computing Advisory Committee (ASCAC) in March, Steve Binkley, then the acting director of the DOE Office of Science, said the collaboration restrictions policy is “focused primarily” on DOE’s labs and would initially focus on the same four countries as the talent programs policy. He said that particle accelerators, quantum information science, artificial intelligence, and biotechnologies such as CRISPR-Cas9 are among the areas DOE is concerned about; however, the restrictions would apply to only a “small, very, very precise, almost surgical list of technologies” within those areas.

According to Binkley, the current effort builds on previous steps to improve research security. He noted, for instance, that over the past decade DOE has become more wary of how accelerator technologies could be used to produce nuclear materials. Binkley said that in crafting its forthcoming policies, the department is engaging with chief research officers at the national labs as well as with leaders from universities, university associations, and scientific societies.

Several agencies step up efforts

Other federal agencies are taking their own action to increase scrutiny of talent programs and other forms of “foreign influence.

The National Institutes of Health has launched investigations into cases where it believes researchers may be receiving undisclosed support from foreign entities, diverting intellectual property, or inappropriately sharing grant applications. On 5 June NIH deputy director Lawrence Tabak told the Senate Finance Committee that the agency has made inquiries with 61 institutions where it believes such activities may be taking place.

Those inquiries have already led the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, to investigate five of its researchers. Several reportedly left the center after it initiated termination proceedings. The center cleared one of the five, finding no “willful malfeasance” and recommending no disciplinary action because the researcher retired voluntarily before it completed the investigation. Separately, Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, recently fired two Chinese American researchers and closed their laboratories, finding they had not properly disclosed foreign funding.

The Department of Defense would have implemented strict restrictions on talent program participation under a proposal floated last year in the House, which authorized DOD to require grant applicants to certify that no recipient of grant funds had ever participated in such a program. Ultimately, Congress enacted a more moderate measure that directed DOD to work with universities to develop appropriate policies. The department has since implemented a policy that requires grant applicants to disclose information about all research projects that key personnel are working on, regardless of their funding source.

NSF director France Córdova recently told the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee that, although her agency already requires grant applicants to disclose other funding sources and has discovered no instances of misappropriation, it has created a “research protection group” to shore up its practices. To inform its efforts, she noted NSF has initiated a “risk assessment of research protection” from the JASON science advisory group, remarking, “As we take more steps to protect the integrity of research, we need to be careful that we don’t overdo something or underdo it.”

The National Science and Technology Council, an interagency coordinating body, recently established a joint committee that will tackle research security along with other issues bearing on research integrity. However, to date, the White House has not taken a leading role in pushing agency-level actions.

This article is adapted from a 13 June post on FYI, which reports on federal science policy with a focus on the physical sciences. Both FYI and Physics Today are published by the American Institute of Physics.

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