FYI: Science Policy News

DOD to Screen Researchers for Risky Foreign Ties

JUL 20, 2023
The Department of Defense is implementing a process for assessing risks posed by researchers’ ties to foreign countries of concern and rejecting grant proposals for which it deems the risks cannot be satisfactorily reduced.
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Director of FYI

Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Heidi Shyu issued a policy last month that establishes minimum standards for research grantee vetting across DOD.

(Eric Dietrich / U.S. Air Force)

The Department of Defense published a policy last month that details the process it will use to assess whether applicants for DOD research grants have risky connections to foreign entities and to reject proposals presenting unacceptable risks. The policy is accompanied by a matrix of risk factors that will guide grantmaking decisions by DOD program officers. Some parts of DOD have already implemented this type of review procedure, such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency , and the new policy requires all DOD research arms to follow suit.

The move responds to a 2021 presidential directive on research security known as NSPM-33 and requirements in recent legislation, such as the CHIPS and Science Act’s ban on funding researchers who participate in “malign foreign talent recruitment programs.” In parallel with the new policy, DOD released initial lists of such recruitment programs as well as of foreign research institutions it cautions against collaborating with, fulfilling a provision of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021.

Decision matrix formalizes risk review process

The new DOD policy spells out how disclosed information can lead to funding denials, which is a step beyond other recent agency moves to expand grantee disclosure requirements. While DOD has long restricted who can work on projects involving classified subjects or controlled unclassified information, the new policy applies to all DOD-funded fundamental research, regardless of classification.

The policy’s stated aim is to reduce “research security risks,” which it defines as “an increased likelihood that research and development efforts or results will be misappropriated to the detriment of national or economic security, as well as related violations of research integrity and foreign government interference.”

The matrix lists four types of researcher activity that will lead DOD to require risk mitigation measures as a condition of making the award: participating in certain talent recruitment programs, actively receiving funding from foreign countries of concern, filing patents in a foreign country of concern prior to filing in the U.S., and maintaining associations with entities of concern, such as those on the Commerce Department’s “entity list.” The countries of concern are defined as China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.

DOD may also recommend mitigation measures for related activities, such as co-authoring scientific papers with individuals who participate in malign talent recruitment programs or who are on the Commerce Department’s “denied persons list.” Examples of mitigation measures offered by DOD include requiring insider risk training, increasing the frequency of project reporting, requiring individuals to resign from positions that DOD deems problematic, and entirely removing from the project individuals it deems present research security risks.

Starting in August 2024, the policy requires DOD to outright deny funding to projects involving participants in malign recruitment programs as well as projects where the lead institution does not have a policy in place prohibiting participation in such programs.

The screening process will apply to all individuals who are considered essential to project execution, such as the principal investigator and co-investigator. The reviews will be conducted on all fundamental research projects that have been “selected for award based on technical merit,” rather than on all grant proposals DOD receives. The policy also states that such reviews should be conducted “in a manner that does not discourage international research collaboration.”

A detailed summary of the screening process has been published by the Council on Governmental Relations, a university association.

DOD lists focused on China and Russia

The government’s crackdown on talent recruitment programs stems in part from cases in which researchers received funds from China’s Thousand Talents Program to set up labs in China on a part-time basis and did not disclose the arrangement to their home institution in the United States.

DOD’s list of malign recruitment programs includes the Thousand Talents program and four other programs supported by the Chinese government: the Hundred Talents Plan, Pearl River Talent Program, River Talents Plan, and Changjiang Scholar Distinguished Professorship. It also includes one recruitment program sponsored by the Russian government, Project 5-100.

No other programs are specifically named, but the policy details criteria that will lead DOD to consider a recruitment program to be malign, such as the program requiring participants to recruit additional researchers or requiring participants to not disclose their involvement in the program.

A separate list accompanying the policy identifies foreign institutions that DOD has concluded have a history of problematic behavior, such as stealing intellectual property or supporting their country’s military or intelligence services.

The list includes China’s “Seven Sons of National Defense,” a set of seven universities regarded as having close ties with the country’s military. Other Chinese universities on the list are the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, National University of Defense Technology, Sichuan University, Tianjin University, Sun Yat-Sen University, and Ocean University of China.

The list also includes the Hefei National Laboratory for Physical Sciences at the Microscale, Beijing Computational Science Research Center, Beijing High Voltage Research Center, Academy of Military Medical Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Shenyang Institute of Automation, and several branches of the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics.

Eight Russian institutions are on the list: the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, the Institute of High Energy Physics, the Institute of Solid-State Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Rzhanov Institute of Semiconductor Physics, the Boreskov Institute of Catalysis, the Tactical Missile Corporation, the Federal State Budgetary Institution of Science, and the Moscow Order of the Red Banner of Labor Research Radio Engineering Institute.

Only one institution on the list is not from China or Russia: the Mabna Institute, an Iranian company that has been implicated in cyberattacks against U.S. universities.

All of these institutions are already on the Commerce Department’s “entity list” except for the Mabna Institute and the Ocean University of China.

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