Science and Security

Rising tensions bring policy changes to US institutions
10 September 2019
By Jennifer Douris O'Bryan
US Capitol Building

In response to ongoing concerns regarding foreign scientists' access to critical research and technology being developed in the United States, US agencies are putting forward policy changes that will impact international collaborations.

Department of Energy (DOE)

On 14 December 2018, DOE issued a memorandum titled "Department of Energy International Science and Technology Engagement Policy." The memo lays out a set of immediate changes related to foreign nationals' access to DOE laboratories, including enhanced vetting procedures. The memo also establishes a DOE Federal Oversight Advisory Body that is charged with developing an S&T risk matrix. The purpose of the risk matrix is to identify technology areas of national interest to the US, and to limit access to these technologies by certain individuals from countries deemed "sensitive."

Neither the list of technologies nor which countries would be considered as sensitive was listed in the memo. The memo also states that scientists performing research in a listed technology area from one of the sensitive countries will not be allowed access to DOE laboratories to perform activities regarding those technologies. DOE laboratories receive tens of thousands of foreign visitors a year, a large portion from China.

Additionally, DOE issued a memorandum on 31 January 2019 prohibiting DOE employees, contractors, or those performing work under a DOE grant or cooperative agreement from participation in foreign talent recruitment programs of countries deemed sensitive. The memo also does not specify what countries DOE deems to be sensitive. On 17 June 2019, DOE issued a directive adjusting the scope of the original memo to cover DOE employees and contractors, but plans to issue a separate memo regarding grant recipients.

National Science Foundation (NSF)

On 11 July 2019, NSF Director France Cordova sent out a Dear Colleague letter—an official correspondence between members of US Congress—announcing that NSF is putting forward a policy that prohibits participation in foreign talent recruitment programs by NSF personnel. In addition, the letter states that NSF has commissioned the independent scientific advisory group JASON to conduct a study to assess security risks and make recommendations to NSF on potential policy changes. Their report is expected by end of year.

In addition, NSF published a "Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide" to provide clarity regarding disclosure requirements.

National Institutes of Health (NIH)

The National Institutes of Health sent out a notice on 10 July 2019 titled "Reminders of NIH Policies on Other Support and on Policies related to Financial Conflicts of Interest and Foreign Components." The notice details reporting requirements for "all sources of research support, financial interests and affiliations, both foreign and domestic, and to continue to support properly reported international collaborative research." Though the notice was presented as a clarification of existing policy, many see it as an expansion of NIH reporting requirements.

The notice comes on the heels of increased enforcement of existing NIH reporting requirements for disclosure. NIH concerns have grown out of numerous uncovered violations of the policies for disclosure of foreign ties, which has resulted in the dismissal of several NIH-affiliated scientists.

A Delicate Balance

The difficulty of maintaining a correct balance between open science and national security is not lost on the leaders charged with promulgating these policy changes. In the NSF letter released in July, Director Cordova stated, "International collaboration is essential to pursuing the frontiers of science" and that a "great strength of the US research and engineering enterprise is the diversity of talent-both domestic and international." However, it is hard to deny that the totality of the increased scrutiny by US agencies, as well as the White House and Congress, has many foreign researchers working in the US on edge.

SPIE will continue to represent the optics and photonics community on these matters and serves as a resource to the US government in the ongoing decisions regarding securing scientific research.

SPIE supports policies that allow for the international mobility of scientists. Sharing knowledge and talent through collaboration has been core to scientific breakthroughs for over a century and will continue to be a vital element to innovation across the sciences. .

-Jennifer Douris O'Bryan is the SPIE Director of Government Affairs.

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