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By Philip H. Bucksbaum, S. James Gates Jr., Robert Rosner, Frances Hellman, James Hollenhorst, Baha Balantekin, and Jonathan Bagger
We are writing to share with you our concerns about our federal government’s current approach to research security. Free information exchange between research groups worldwide is essential for progress in science. Yet the US government is placing new restrictions on Chinese contact based on recent concerns that China is stealing knowledge and technology developed in US research labs. There are real threats to national security posed by unauthorized transfer of knowledge and technical expertise. But a response that chokes off legitimate scientific contacts only compounds the problem it seeks to solve. This will inevitably lead to the loss of US competitiveness and international prestige and threaten our future economic progress. A more effective approach to research security balances the responsibilities of the government and the scientists to address the problem. We scientists need to strengthen our partnership with the federal government to ensure that fundamental research remains open to all.
A decade ago the term “research security” referred mainly to the protection of classified information. But now, along with “cybersecurity” and “data security,” the phrase “research security” has been broadened to include work that is deemed of national interest despite NOT being classified, such as Quantum Information Science, and has become part of the national zeitgeist. In early January, all federal funding agencies were directed by the White House in a national security Presidential memo (NSPM-33) to establish new research security guidelines “to strengthen protections of United States Government-supported Research and Development (R&D) against foreign government interference and exploitation” . This was established in the waning days of the Trump administration, but the concerns expressed are bipartisan and the order is still in force. The focus is especially on China. The FBI has made some high-profile arrests, but unlike famous cases of past decades which revolved around access to classified information at the weapons labs, many of those now accused are accomplished scientists engaged in university research in fundamental science, with close collaborations in China. Responding to pressure from funding agencies and the FBI, most research universities are also instituting new procedures to protect their research, even if it is unclassified, fundamental, and intended for open publication.
Why? What has changed? Is the federal government responding to the “greatest threat to democracy and freedom world-wide since World War II” (as described by the Director of National Intelligence) , or is this a xenophobic over-reaction (as suggested by some members of Congress), a new incarnation of McCarthyism, now focused on China? . Certainly scientists of Chinese descent have been disproportionately targeted . But in addition, it is important to understand that these latest fears about research security have a deeper connection to the changing landscape of international cooperation and competition in research.
The US was preeminent in science in the decades following World War II and is still so in many areas; but nowadays the most active research fields are truly international. US graduate degree programs have long been magnets for the best and brightest applicants from anywhere in the world. Today, nearly half of our physics graduate students studying in American universities are from other countries. When they graduate, many stay in the United States, enriching our economy. But the world is catching up.
China, especially, has focused on competing with the US in research. With a total R&D budget that is only slightly smaller than our own , China has been building its research infrastructure, including hundreds of new university programs, and leadership-class research facilities in many areas.
Of course, in most ways this is good news for science. More colleagues and more research training venues will inevitably expand progress in areas of physics we care deeply about. Many of us have not only welcomed this but helped to spur it along by attending or helping to organize conferences in China, holding summer schools and workshops there, and even spending some of our research effort in collaborations or in setting up new laboratories. All these efforts are paying off for both countries. China now leads the world in the number of papers submitted to the Physical Review and many other leading research journals. US scientists benefit from major research investments by China, such as the Daya Bay reactor neutrino experiment.
Recently, however, there have been cases of unfair and unethical research practices from China, such as talent contracts with clauses intended to keep them secret issued by Chinese research institutes competing not just to catch up with their US counterparts, but to leap ahead. There are also documented cases of research espionage carried out by trained foreign operatives posing as legitimate scientists, as well as allegations of coercion of Chinese students by their own government to induce them to reveal pre-publication research . These nefarious practices might not be widespread, but they are truly disturbing .
As of this writing, the FBI claims that its counterintelligence cases involving improper technology transfer to China have risen dramatically, now accounting for fully one-third of its counterintelligence case load . The FBI claims it has uncovered hundreds of breaches of research security, and this has led to some convictions for espionage. The Department of Justice (DOJ) says that 80 percent of its prosecutions for “economic espionage” now involve China. It has begun a “China Initiative” to emphasize this new strategic priority . An updated list of accusations, convictions, and exonerations contains more than a dozen university professors as of this writing, as well as several other research scientists and students .
These are sobering and disturbing statistics that suggest China is using science collaborations to harm the US. But a closer look reveals a deeper and even more disturbing truth: the reactions by the US government to these serious problems are creating remedies that are worse than the disease they attempt to cure. US scientists have now come under suspicion simply for failing to disclose their connections and funding from Chinese talent programs, connections that were strongly encouraged by our government only a decade ago when China was beginning its push to build universities and modernize its research infrastructure . Chinese students have also come under suspicion. A bill was introduced in Congress that would exclude from the US all Chinese students and postdocs in STEM fields, despite the fact that virtually none of these young people has any connection to the Chinese military system or government sponsored talent programs, or any indication that they are participating in international espionage . Such a law could deprive our country of some of its most talented future scientists. This extreme legislation has little chance of becoming law; but the mere fact that such measures are politically appealing is truly chilling.
The DOJ China Initiative criminal prosecutions of academic scientists are going to trial now, and in many cases the government’s allegations are not holding up. Some cases are being dismissed or dropped before coming to trial. Others see significant reductions in the charges. The judgments won against academics are often just failures to disclose foreign connections. To be specific, of thirteen professors prosecuted by the Department of Justice as of this writing, all but two are charged with failure to disclose ties to China. To be clear, ties to institutions other than one’s own, particularly those that involve funding, are considered “conflicts of commitment” and failure to disclose these is an unacceptable practice, but such failures to disclose are generally not considered a crime prosecutable by the DOJ but instead result in sanctions by the individual’s institution or agencies such as the NSF who fund the individual. This is a “hardball” prosecutorial tactic, where counterintelligence investigations and arrests by the FBI lead to trials for the infraction of receiving research funds or salary and not reporting it. Prominent scientists have been taken away in handcuffs, their research groups disbanded, and reputations ruined—over failure to properly disclose an activity. As scientists we understand that integrity in research reporting is essential. But we also have an obligation to call out wildly disproportionate responses when we see them, and the current response is that.
Many US scientists, and particularly those of Chinese origin, now fear that any contact with our colleagues in China is likely to be punished, no matter how divorced from real espionage or theft . Participation in talent programs is now explicitly forbidden by DOE order within the National Labs . According to this order, even benign activities that are essential for the conduct of science, such as serving on international science advisory committees for Chinese research institutes, now require a waiver that must be approved by the Secretary of Energy herself. Needless to say, the result of such an order is to curtail most of these activities, and the United States is the poorer for it. Some researchers are even hesitating to participate in anonymous reviews of research papers or grant proposals if the author happens to be in China.
The valuable research partnership between scientists and government that we cherish in the United States is now under threat from two sides: foreign governments are exploiting our international contacts for their own geopolitical advantage; and our own government is responding by arresting us. This makes no sense. How can we return to sanity? The key to progress may be appreciating that the FBI and Justice Department say they are just as concerned about the dangers of overreach as we are but don’t have the tools to solve this issue without our active participation. We have learned from discussions with federal officials that in some recent instances where the research community has discovered and repaired ethical breaches by its members, the Justice Department and FBI have been willing to let our community handle the infraction, and careers have been preserved. This is an approach that we, as a community, should embrace.
We, the scientists and students engaged in science and technology research, must intensify our commitment to research integrity. The public’s traditionally high regard for our honesty and their confidence in the importance of our work must not be taken for granted; it must be earned. The elements of research integrity include objectivity, honesty, openness, accountability, fairness, disclosure, and stewardship . Three elements of particular relevance here include the prompt disclosure of potential conflicts of commitment; the assurance that information exchanged between US and international scientists is not just one-way; and the protection of pre-publication research information from unauthorized premature transfer to competitors.
The Federal government must preserve open science in the United States. The government is our guarantor that fundamental research performed in the United States, by which we mean any research intended for open publication remains unrestricted to the maximum extent possible. Research that cannot be published openly because of national security concerns should be restricted through the established methods of security classification. These principles have been laid out in Presidential Directive NSDD-189 established during the Reagan administration  and reaffirmed by subsequent administrations from both parties and by independent reviews . We call on the current administration to reaffirm this directive.
Regular readers of these pages know that the APS has been working with our members to promote the ideals that we have just described . APS consults with Congress on legislation and with the White House and federal agencies on how to craft and implement the best science policies. APS pushes back when policies are misdirected and briefs the Federal Courts to make sure that our community’s voice is heard in critical matters. APS is working to inform and educate our members about our own responsibilities as scientists. Our recent Delta Phy webinar on science security and China is one example and so is our statement on science ethics.
Finally, APS has convened a series of direct meetings between leading US physicists and our counterparts in China to engage in face-to-face dialog on these issues. APS leadership attends these meetings, and we share a strong sense that both delegations know that these issues cannot be resolved until scientists address them ourselves. Although our two nations will continue to be engaged in vigorous competition in many areas, we are confident that scientists can come together as a community to take responsibility for the ethical conduct of science. This would reduce the international tensions in fundamental research and restore the basic partnerships that can advance the frontiers of science and technology for all.
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Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondents: Sophia Chen, Alaina G. Levine