Long-awaited US guidelines designed to make reporting collaborations and funding more straight forward and transparent were released by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in a Jan. 4 report.
The guidelines tell federal agencies that fund scientific research how to implement National Security Presidential Memorandum-33 (NSPM-33), a research-security directive issued by former president Donald J. Trump in response to fears that China is trying to unlawfully appropriate US academic research. Agencies have been working together for months to come up with requirements that are consistent throughout the government.
The results could have a big impact on universities and individual researchers as they try to navigate grant applications and conflict-of-interest disclosures in an era when academic research—especially international collaborations and funding—has become the target of more scrutiny.
“We see this as an opportunity to improve the patchwork system of reporting that puts an undue burden on researchers and research organizations and creates loopholes that makes us more vulnerable to our adversaries,” an OSTP staffer wrote to C&EN in response to emailed questions.
Only one part of the OSTP guidance is mandatory: agencies must create rules that do not discriminate. Many scientists have said that the current response to fears that China is appropriating US research—including dozens of prosecutions brought under the Department of Justice’s China Initiative—have ended up targeting Chinese scientists working in the US and created a chilling effect on continued international research.
The most important part of the OSTP guidelines might be creating uniformity in what information agencies ask grantees for and how they ask for it. That includes reporting research funding of any kind, including grants, appointments, travel, and equipment.
But because the report largely has guidelines, not requirements, it “still seems to give many of the agencies the leeway to still do their own thing and do the joint thing,” says Deborah Altenburg, associate vice president for research policy and government affairs at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. But she is optimistic that the agencies will create a uniform reporting process.
One step forward outlined in the report is the use of digital persistent identifiers—unique, long-term IDs associated with an individual. Such identifiers would allow scientists to update a single record of their research funding and publications that could then be downloaded to grant applications, annual reports, and other documents, rather than having to update the information in multiple locations.
Many university and advocacy groups had asked that the guidelines include a period when people who did not report international collaborations be allowed to report those now without fear of repercussions. The guidelines ask agencies to encourage reporting of prior nondisclosures. But instead of recommending waiving penalties, the OSTP suggests that agencies ensure that consequences are proportional to the offenses.
Emily Weinstein, who studies talent programs at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, says that China gave 7,000–10,000 awards through its now-maligned Thousand Talents program alone, and it had 250 more programs. “From a counterintelligence perspective, it would be very helpful” to get scientists to disclose their involvement in such programs and share the documents they signed.
The guidelines also include a section on a new security office required of any research organization that receives more than $50 million in federal research funding each year. Called research-security programs, such offices must address cybersecurity, foreign-travel security, research-security training, and export-control training.
Many of the details of how these changes will play out are yet to come. Agencies are working through the details and should report back to OSTP in the next 6 months.