Early last week, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released it’s long-awaited guidance to all federal research agencies on how to implement the requirements in National Security Presidential Memorandum 33 (NSPM-33). That memorandum, issued in the closing days of the previous administration, is meant to, “strengthen protections of United States Government-supported R&D against foreign government interference and exploitation,” while, “maintaining an open environment to foster research discoveries and innovation that benefit our nation and the world.” The NSPM-33 was issued in response to multiple incidents over the years of foreign governments (primarily China, though Russia and Iran are also frequently cited) attempting to illicitly obtain research from federally supported researchers. The guidance is meant to clear up conflicts of interest, so research agencies know where researchers are receiving support, while also providing a framework of penalties for deliberate noncompliance or evasion of these new requirements.
An on-going concern with efforts to crack down on this “research security” problem is that it could lead to singling out people of specific ethnicities, particular those of Chinese descent. OSTP and the National Science and Technology Council were as concerned about not fueling prejudice and xenophobia as they were about protecting research. In fact, the “General Implementation Guidance” (page 1) states that research agencies need to engage with the research community throughout their implementation process, as well as to adopt measures that are “risk-based,” while avoiding retroactive application of measures. While this appears to be a good first step, there is still much work to be do, most significantly each research agency will need to put out their specific policies.
We have already seen some of those first steps and there are concerns. Back in September, the Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) released their initial rubric for identifying researchers and placing them in risk categories. Those instructions focused heavily on relationships and ties (family, professional, financial) of researchers and less on actions that researchers have taken (ex: participation in a foreign government talent recruitment program or accepting gifts from people or companies aligned with foreign governments). It also named specific countries of concern, with China, Russia, and Iran used prominently. As an example, a foreign-born Chinese American researcher, regardless of citizenship status, could be labeled as “high risk” if they still had family in their home country. As another example, a native-born US researcher with foreign-born grad students from the listed countries could be labelled as “high risk.”
Once CRA became aware of this rubric, we engaged with DARPA leadership to voice the community’s concerns with this approach, its likely negative impact on the nation’s research enterprise, and to offer possible revisions. Among them, we recommended removing mention of specific countries; this would not only reduce the chance of prejudice against researchers from specific countries, but it would also help the rubric to age better. We also suggested that the focus should be more on actions taken by researchers and not on their professional or kinship relationships. Thankfully, DARPA listened and substantially changed their rubric to reflect these edits; they released the revised rubric in early December, along with a FAQ.
This is not the end of the process; it is only the initial guidance for all federal research agencies. Each agency will now need to individualize it for implementation with their communities. As well, this guidance does not explain how the federal government will use this information in making decisions about research funding and support for researchers; OSTP and the National Science and Technology Council are now beginning the initial steps in those areas. This will require constant vigilance on the part of research community to make sure it is implemented correctly and fairly. As actions are taken by the assorted research agencies, we will provide updates, so please keep checking back.