Research funding guidelines are likely to tighten procedures for technology transfer

Research security panel
White House science adviser Kelvin Droegemeier speaks on a panel at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in Seattle. Other panelists include moderator Margaret Hamburg, AAAS board chair (on Droegemeier’s left side); Jodi Black of the National Institutes of Health; Pradeep Khosla, chancellor at the University of California at San Diego; and Mary Lidstrom, vice provost for research at the University of Washington. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Concerns about international intellectual property theft are feeding into the formulation of new guidelines for auditing federal research funding. And the White House’s science adviser, Kelvin Droegemeier, says he’s trying to make sure the guidelines don’t become too restrictive.

“For research security in particular, I can tell you that we’ve developed a policy for guidance to agencies that is really good,” Droegemeier said today during a town hall session at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in Seattle. “Let me just tell you, a year ago, I was concerned about where it was going to land, because I thought it was pretty heavy-duty. It would increase burden and wouldn’t actually address the challenges.”

Since then, the guidelines have been adjusted to respond to input received from international partners and from the Joint Committee on the Research Environment, or JCORE, which includes representatives from academia and industry as well as government agencies.

“The one thing that we don’t want to do is build really tall fences around really big areas,” Droegemeier, a meteorologist who heads the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, told attendees. “That would hamstring our research enterprises, and that’s not the right approach.”

After the session, Droegemeier told GeekWire that the guidelines would be released soon but didn’t provide a precise time frame.

Research security and intellectual property theft have become huge concerns in recent years, feeding into larger U.S.-China trade disputes. The controversy over Huawei’s 5G plans and the potential for security breaches is one example. A case at the University of California at San Diego, involving an eye doctor who was accused of receiving support from Chinese backers as well as U.S. federal grants, is another.

Droegemeier noted that the FBI is devoting significant resources to tracking the research security issue.

“We’ve heard from Director [Chris] Wray at the FBI that there’s a little over 1,000 open cases that have a nexus to China in particular, which are a mixture of those involving private companies and academia. A lot of those are not criminal cases, they’re breaking rules on disclosure, or whatever,” he said.

Jodi Black, deputy director of the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Extramural Research, said her office alone is working with 80 institutions on cases involving about 180 individuals. “That’s a small number in the context of the entire scientific enterprise, but there are some really very egregious things, and it normalizes that bad behavior,” she said.

Black listed several categories of bad behavior, such as receiving funds from multiple sources — including foreign sources — for doing the same research. Black said Chinese funding in particular can be problematic because of the strings that are sometimes attached to the money, such as establishing a Chinese-based lab or giving preference to Chinese students for post-doctoral positions.

She said the lapses extend to the peer-review process: For example, she’s seen cases of reviewers forwarding pre-publication drafts to foreign colleagues, complete with annotations, as well as efforts to manipulate the scores for papers submitted by favored investigators.

“That’s not fair,” Black said. “That’s cheating.”

Although the details of the new guidelines haven’t been released, the comments made today suggest there’ll be more attention devoted to auditing the disclosure forms that are submitted by researchers.

Microbiologist Mary Lidstrom, the University of Washington’s vice provost for research, said UW is already adding extra layers of scrutiny, including a targeted monitoring program for collaborations involving high-risk countries.

“This is a very streamlined process,” she said. “It only delays an agreement a day or two … and it’s invisible to the researcher.”

Droegemeier talked up the value of spot-checking the veracity of disclosure forms. “There are 54 FBI field offices in the United States. Universities are not equipped to go out and do a kind of TSA ‘pull someone out the line’ and spot-check a disclosure. Those disclosures are all self-disclosures, so the accuracy depends on the degree to which people are being audited. Well, that’s not enough these days,” he said.

“People have to understand that those things are being audited and spot-checked, just like your taxes occasionally get looked at for a potential audit,” Droegemeier said. “Just simply knowing that, not only is it a risk-based approach, but it’s a behavior-based approach. That’s the approach that this policy we’re developing is taking.”

Black said that should feed into the development of a research culture that fully embraces security concerns, and heads off bad behavior before it happens.

“Erring on the side of disclosure, and using that as your training mantra, I think will help resolve a lot of problems,” she said.

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