Clear Rules for Research Security and Researcher Responsibility
By: Dr. Eric Lander
President’s Science Advisor and
Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy
The Biden-Harris Administration holds a strong commitment to protecting research security and maintaining the core values behind America’s scientific leadership, including openness, transparency, honesty, equity, fair competition, objectivity, and democratic values.
During its final week in office, the previous administration issued a National Security Presidential Memorandum (NSPM-33) to “strengthen protections of United States Government-supported R&D against foreign government interference and exploitation” while “maintaining an open environment to foster research discoveries and innovation that benefit our nation and the world.”
Given the timing of the release of NSPM-33, the previous administration did not have time to develop implementation guidance for federal agencies. The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is working on how to implement NSPM-33 effectively, rigorously, and uniformly across the federal government in a way that protects the nation’s interests in both security and openness.
Over the next 90 days, OSTP will develop clear and effective implementation guidance for NSPM-33, working in close partnership with the National Security Council staff, fellow Cabinet agencies, and other federal agencies through the National Science and Technology Council.
NSPM-33 implementation guidance will address three major areas:
- Disclosure Policy — ensuring that federally-funded researchers provide their funding agencies and research organizations with appropriate information concerning external involvements that may bear on potential conflicts of interest and commitment;
- Oversight and Enforcement — ensuring that federal agencies have clear and appropriate policies concerning consequences for violations of disclosure requirements and interagency sharing of information about such violations; and,
- Research Security Programs — ensuring that research organizations that receive substantial federal R&D funding (greater than $50 million annually) maintain appropriate research security programs.
Below, we outline some of the principles that will guide this work.
Protect America’s Security and Openness
Since World War II, America’s research enterprise has been second to none, delivering profound benefits for our health, economy, and national security. We’ve led the world for two key reasons: because we invest heavily, and because we do science openly.
This openness matters a great deal — and there’s strong bipartisan support for it. It means ideas are better — because they have to compete in an open, global marketplace, where new concepts are critiqued and debated on their merits. It means we have the best people — because we welcome and are a magnet for outstanding scientific talent from around the world. And it ensures scientific progress moves forward rapidly — because every new breakthrough builds on those that came before it.
It has become clear, though, that some foreign governments, including the Chinese government, are working vigorously to illicitly acquire, and in some cases outright steal, U.S. research and technology. There have been efforts to induce American scientists to secretively conduct research programs on behalf of foreign governments or to inappropriately disclose non-public results from research funded by U.S. government sources. Such threats are real, serious, and completely unacceptable.
We thus have to guard against abuses and protect intellectual property rights — without undermining the openness that is central to both scientific discovery and our national character.
The vast majority of scientific researchers want to do the right thing. Here, doing the right thing means fully and transparently disclosing all relevant activities and information that bear on potential conflicts of interest and commitment.
Disclosing such information is part of the broader set of researchers’ responsibilities to ensure objectivity, honesty, transparency, fairness, accountability, and stewardship. (These responsibilities are sometimes referred to as research responsibilities or research integrity.)
For researchers to fulfill their responsibility to disclose, the federal government needs to be clear about what should be disclosed and how. Establishing rules that are confusing, complicated, inconsistent, or unduly burdensome will not optimize security, because people and institutions tend not to follow such rules carefully.
We need policies and processes that are clear and uniform — so that well-intentioned researchers can easily and properly comply, and those with dishonest or malicious intent have little excuse for their actions.
For example, one approach might be to enable researchers to provide disclosures and declarations through a simple, modular, uniform system that functions like an electronic CV, containing information about a scientist’s degrees, positions, affiliations, and funding sources, updated on a regular basis, that can be used for any federal grant.
We want to promote widespread understanding of the risks to research; provide a clear description of what relationships, appointments, and sources of funding pose potential conflicts of interest or commitment, and what information about them should be disclosed and when; ensure there are mechanisms to identify when policies and processes are violated; and ensure that there are clear and appropriate consequences for violation, coupled throughout to due process.
Ensure Policies Do Not Fuel Xenophobia or Prejudice
We have to assiduously avoid basing policies or processes on prejudice — including those that could fuel anti-Asian sentiments or xenophobia. Prejudice is fundamentally unacceptable, and will backfire because it will make it harder to attract the best scientific minds from around the world. We must affirm the integral role of Asian-Americans, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, and people of all national origins in this country; welcome international students and scholars; and avoid casting aspersions on people because of their identity or origins.
In designing policies, we should also avoid actions that are pointless or performative, such as requiring scientists to return honorary degrees from Chinese universities. And, it should never be acceptable to target scientists for investigation based on their race or ethnicity. In protecting our nation, we must uphold its fundamental values.
As we work to develop this guidance and thereafter, we will continue to engage with America’s diverse community of researchers and research institutions. We want to hear and incorporate the best ideas — especially ideas from those whose day-to-day work these policies affect. To send us your ideas on NSPM-33 implementation, email firstname.lastname@example.org.