The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations Nov. 19 held a hearing titled, “Securing the U.S. Research Enterprise from China’s Talent Recruitment Plans.” Witnesses included representatives from five federal research and security agencies, and follows a June Senate Finance Committee hearing on the same topic [see Washington Highlights, June 7].
Coincident with the hearing, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a bipartisan report, Threats to the US Research Enterprise: China’s Talent Recruitment Plans. The study details efforts by the Chinese government to obtain information and technology from U.S. research laboratories, primarily through the Thousand Talents Program (TTP). Appendices to the report include sample contracts and documents obligating TTP recruits to the provision of information, with deference to Chinese organizations over their US host institution. The report calls for U.S. agencies and research institutions to enforce existing policies on disclosure and management of conflicts of interest and commitment, noting: “U.S. universities and U.S.-based researchers must take responsibility in addressing this threat. If U.S. universities can vet employees for scientific rigor or allegations of plagiarism, they also can vet for financial conflicts of interests and foreign sources of funding. If U.S. researchers can assess potential collaborators’ research aptitude and their past publications, they should know their collaborators’ affiliations and their research intentions."
Subcommittee Chairman Rob Portman (R-Ohio) in his opening statement noted the importance of publishing the report to increase awareness of the breaches of integrity within the higher education community and the public more broadly. Sen. Portman shared frustration “that the U.S. government was slow to recognize the threat and even today lacks a coordinated interagency strategy to secure US research.”
Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-Del.) added that in light of the report, the U.S. “should not be stepping back from international collaboration,” and noted his support for the work agencies have initiated to mitigate foreign government threats to research. Sen. Carper concluded, “These are good first steps but we need to do more. Due to our lax oversight of federal research grants and the ineffective and mixed messages agencies have been delivering to schools and researchers on this topic over the years, we’ve given the Chinese and likely other countries a running start.”
Witnesses shared their agencies’ efforts to work collaboratively and with constituents to protect the U.S. research enterprise. National Institutes of Health (NIH) Deputy Director for Extramural Research Michael Lauer, MD, shared an update on active investigations, citing that NIH has contacted “more than 70 awardee institutions” on the issues of failure to disclose financial conflicts of interest, sharing of intellectual property, or breaches of the peer-review process. Additionally, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Assistant Director in the Counterintelligence Division, John Brown, noted that each of the FBI’s 56 field offices has a counterintelligence task force that engages frequently and substantively with local institutions and businesses.
Sen. Portman concluded the hearing in seeking feedback on requiring federal research agencies to develop a uniform grant application in an effort to harmonize agencies efforts to identify bad actors. Dr. Lauer and National Science Foundation Office of International Science and Engineering Head Rebecca Keiser, PhD, shared their support for work towards a common research application.
Sen. Portman and other members also showed support for recent steps taken by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), including through the Joint Committee on the Research Environment (JCORE), to engage with institutions on raising attention to this issue and coordinating more effective responses. OSTP recently published a summary of the first JCORE Summit, held Nov. 5, which included the themes of transparency and integrity in research.