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By Mitch Ambrose
At the outset of 2022, the White House released guidance for science agencies to use as they implement National Security Presidential Memorandum 33 (NSPM-33), a directive that sets minimum requirements for research security policies across the government. NSPM-33 was issued by the Trump administration during its final week and the Biden administration so far has chosen not to modify it, opting instead to shape how the policy is applied.
The new guidance document aims to address continued confusion over what information federally funded researchers must disclose to the government pursuant to NSPM-33, and to address concerns about the administrative burdens of disclosure and the potential for unfair enforcement. Such matters have taken on high stakes, particularly as the Department of Justice has prosecuted more than a dozen academic scientists over the past three years for allegedly concealing their ties to institutions in China.
The interagency panel that produced the document was charged by White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Eric Lander to craft guidance that addresses risks posed by researchers’ connections to certain foreign governments while also ensuring such policies do not stoke discrimination and xenophobia.
Acknowledging that tension, the document states that agency policies must be implemented in a nondiscriminatory manner and should be “risk-based,” meaning they “offer tangible benefit that justifies any accompanying cost or burden.”
At the same time, it stresses, “There have been efforts to induce American scientists to secretively conduct research programs on behalf of foreign governments or to inappropriately disclose non-public results from research funded by U.S. government sources.” It also specifically identifies China, Russia, and Iran as examples of countries with governments that are “working vigorously … to acquire, through both licit and illicit means, U.S. research and technology.”
The guidance document does not address criminal justice matters, focusing instead on standardizing disclosure requirements and their enforcement by science agencies. Outlining what sorts of information will be collected and on what forms, the document includes a detailed table indicating the kinds of organizational affiliations, monetary support, and “in-kind” support that must be disclosed. Lander has charged federal agencies with using this blueprint to produce “model grant application forms and instructions” within 120 days.
NSPM-33’s disclosure requirements apply to principal investigators and “other senior/key personnel” on federal grants, as well as agency program officers, researchers at federal labs, peer reviewers, and federal advisory committee members. The guidance document adds that students should generally be exempt from making disclosures to science agencies.
The exact requirements vary based on the nature of the role of the person in question. However, consistent with federal concern over “foreign government-sponsored talent recruitment programs,” participation in such programs must be universally disclosed for all roles.
The guidance document reiterates that disclosure policy violations can warrant a range of consequences, including criminal and civil penalties as well as administrative actions, such as rejecting an application, dropping personnel from a grant, and barring personnel or entire organizations from receiving future funding. Factors agencies may consider when deciding their course of action include the “harm or potential harm” caused by the violation, the researcher’s knowledge of the requirements, whether it is an isolated incident or part of a pattern, and whether the researcher was forthcoming in correcting omissions and mistakes.
Notably, the document does not describe what kinds of institutional connections should be considered unacceptable, or how exactly agencies should act on the information disclosed to them. OSTP has indicated that an interagency panel will likely develop separate guidance this year on appropriate uses of disclosed information.
The author is Director of FYI.
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