US Republicans push for cross-border research collaboration rules

After Trump crackdown and Biden promise of clearer guidelines, lawmakers grow antsy about lack of progress

February 16, 2024
Mexican families living in Tijuana visit family members living in the US at the border wall in Playas de Tijuana
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After years of delays, US congressional Republicans are pushing the Biden administration to move faster on creating rules that would clear up confusion over what academics must report about their foreign partnerships.

The problem hit crisis levels during the Trump administration, which pursed a crackdown involving expulsions from universities and criminal prosecutions. The Biden administration has repeatedly promised to write clearer rules for what is allowed and what must be disclosed, but has struggled to find workable guidelines.

Looking to move the process along, the chairman of the science committee in the Republican-led US House of Representatives, Frank Lucas, summoned the leaders of the top federal science agencies to appear at a congressional hearing, where he pressed them for results.

The head of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, Arati Prabhakar, told Mr Lucas that the administration had drafted a set of reporting guidelines for researchers with foreign partnerships, but was told by numerous universities that it looked too bureaucratic.

The plan included “a lot of reporting and training requirements”, Dr Prabhakar said. Institutions, she said, saw it as creating large administrative burdens with comparatively little effect, with especially difficult implications for smaller institutions.

“What I want to be sure of,” she told Mr Lucas and other lawmakers, “is that we don’t turn this research security programme process into a checklist that an administrator signs off on”.

While some of his more conservative colleagues took the opportunity to criticise Biden administration policies, Mr Lucas thanked Dr Prabhakar and offered to make any legislative fixes that could be helpful toward the goal.

The Republican committee leader did, however, express some exasperation, listing a series of laws passed by Congress in recent years that were designed to guard against the theft of research secrets from university settings.

“These measures provide a strong framework for research security,” Mr Lucas said. “But to be of any use in protecting our investments, the administration needs to actually execute this framework.”

Members of both major US political parties have been warning US higher education to take more seriously the threat of military and commercial espionage from abroad, especially China.

The Trump administration took that fear to an elevated level, bringing criminal cases against a series of researchers who failed to properly fill out standard disclosure forms, in what many in academia regarded as accidental violations often resulting from unclear regulatory requirements.

Ultimately, said Geraldine Richmond, the under-secretary for science and innovation at the US Department of Energy, the government’s efforts will have to emphasise cultural change rather than build new administrative hurdles.

The Department of Energy funds research both at universities and within its own national laboratories, and Dr Richmond told the Lucas panel that those labs insisted on making security a focal point for all employees as a condition of entry. Universities must do something similar, she said.

“We’ve developed that culture,” Dr Richmond said. “You would hope they would come into a university, wanting to get grant money,” she said of academic scientists, “that they buy into that culture when they first come in, and it’s trusted because it’s been there for a while.”

That, however, might be a difficult sell. Top US research universities have said that they respect the global spy threat but have consistently noted that academia is fundamentally a place for sharing.

Their main grouping, the Association of American Universities, has said that its priorities centre on getting government-wide clarity on what is allowed and how scientists should report it.

“As important as speed is,” said Tobin Smith, the AAU’s senior vice-president for government relations and public policy, universities wanted to see Dr Prabhakar and other federal officials “take the necessary time to get the policy right, making sure it is risk-based and harmonised across federal agencies”.

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