NSF Latest U.S. Agency to Scrutinize Foreign Role in Research


Nowhere in a “dear colleague” letter and accompanying press statement issued by the National Science Foundation last week on concerns about international scientific collaboration does the word “China” appear.

There are statements such as “our science and engineering enterprise, however, is put at risk when another government endeavors to benefit from the global research ecosystem without upholding the values of openness, transparency, and reciprocal collaboration” And “what has changed is the scope and sophistication of the activities threatening our research community, such as certain foreign-government-sponsored talent recruitment programs.”

The letter includes reminders about a year-old policy that “rotators” – scientists on temporary assignment to the NSF – working at NSF facilities must be U.S. citizens or have applied to be U.S. citizens, and that required financial disclosures must include emoluments and gifts from foreign governments.

Thousand Talents seal
The seal of China’s Thousand Talents program

The subtext, in short, is resolutely about China, even if the verbiage is studiously, and geographically, non-specific. Charges that Chinese academics, and China’s government, are not playing by the generally accepted ‘rules’ have been rife for years – especially as China has ramped up its research and development spending and its recruitment of expatriate Chinese or ethnically Chinese scholars under its “Thousand Talents” plan. While these concerns predate the election of Donald Trump as president, his rhetoric reflects and amplifies these concerns. Alleged theft of intellectual property, in fact, was the stated cause for one round of trade tariffs last year, while the National Intelligence Council has labelled Thousand Talents as a racket to spirit away sensitive U.S. intellectual property.

Testifying before the Senate last year, FBI Director Christopher Wray painted a scary picture of Chinese intentions in academia. “I would just say that the use of nontraditional collectors, especially in the academic setting, whether it’s professors, scientists, students, we see in almost every field office that the FBI has around the country. It’s not just in major cities. It’s in small ones as well. It’s across basically every discipline.”

He added, “So one of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-of-government threat but a whole-of-society threat on their end, and I think it’s going to take a whole-of-society response by us.”

The implicit message hasn’t been lost on academics or institutions. “As California’s own dark history teaches us,” three officials from the University of California-Berkeley wrote in February, “an automatic suspicion of people based on their national origin can lead to terrible injustices.” And the Committee of Concerned Scientists has outright accused government of profiling ethnic Chinese scientists.

NSF’s actions follow those of the National Institutes of Health last August. That agency’s director sent a letter to U.S. universities and academic medical centers warning of security concerns over intellectual property and peer review. “NIH is aware,” Dr. Francis Collins explained in the letter, “that some foreign entities have mounted systematic programs to influence NIH researchers and peer reviewers and to take advantage of the long tradition of trust, fairness, and excellence of NIH supported research activities. This kind of inappropriate influence is not limited to biomedical research; it has been a significant issue for defense and energy research for some time.”

For its part, the NSF has an engaged scientific advisory group known as JASON, which traditionally has advised the government when academe and national security intersect, to report back about the concerns by the end of the year. The JASON study, says the NSF, “will assess risks and recommend possible practices for NSF and its awardee organizations to achieve the best balance between openness and security of science.” (The project is also a sort of lifeline to JASON, which has stumbled on hard times of late.)

The foundation is also “clarifying” it guidance on disclosing foreign and domestic support to researchers; that clarification is currently open for public comment. NSF also issued a new policy “stating that personnel employed at and [Intergovernmental Personnel Act assignments] detailed to NSF may not participate in foreign government talent recruitment programs that may jeopardize the integrity of NSF’s mission and operations.”

NSF says a new electronic format for submitting biographical sketches, expected to be in place in January, will assist in these disclosures.

While much of the furor comes from researchers in the technology and biotechnology fields, and not the social and behavioral sciences, the messages from NSF and NIH also shine a different light on the wider immigration debate. How welcoming is the United States to foreign — and especially Asian — scholars, and what will that mean for its academic and competitive prospects?

In June, an open letter from L. Rafael Reif, the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, addressed this broader question. “Protracted visa delays. Harsh rhetoric against most immigrants and a range of other groups, because of religion, race, ethnicity or national origin. Together, such actions and policies have turned the volume all the way up on the message that the US is closing the door – that we no longer seek to be a magnet for the world’s most driven and creative individuals.”

“Every scientist should be concerned — not just scientists of Chinese origin,” Temple University physicist Xi Xiaoxing told Nature last October. In 2015 the FBI arrested Xi – born in China but an American citizen — for allegedly sharing sensitive secrets with China; they later dropped four months later in a case 60 Minutes dubbed “The Spy Who Wasn’t.” Xi, Nature summarized, “argues the US government’s rhetoric threatens not just academic freedom but the US’s place in science and technology globally.”

Last fall, China officials started obscuring their connections to scholars with American ties. It removed lists of researchers attached to Thousand Talents, while the National Natural Science Foundation of China told “interviewers of potential applicants to avoid e-mail correspondence, and not to mention the Thousand Talents Plan when inviting candidates back to the country,” Nature reported.

Such measures seem prudent to many. Australian quantum physicist Tim Byrnes – who is not ethnically Chinese – received a cash award from Thousand Talents. Now, however, he fears his linkage will be seen as a black mark by U.S. authorities or institutions. As he told the AFP news service in an article titled “Science suffers collateral damage as US, China tensions rise,” there was no secret exchange of his findings: “Everything we do is published in academic journals. Everything is disclosed not just to China but to the whole world.

“But the current atmosphere of suspicion is threatening the openness of science.”


Michael Todd

Social Science Space editor Michael Todd is a long-time newspaper editor and reporter whose beats included the U.S. military, primary and secondary education, government, and business. He entered the magazine world in 2006 as the managing editor of Hispanic Business. He joined the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy and its magazine Miller-McCune (renamed Pacific Standard in 2012), where he served as web editor and later as senior staff writer focusing on covering the environmental and social sciences. During his time with the Miller-McCune Center, he regularly participated in media training courses for scientists in collaboration with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Institute, and individual research institutions.

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