NSF hopes big data will finger grantees not reporting foreign support | Science

The National Science Foundation (NSF) will soon begin crunching several large databases to see whether there are scientists who failed to disclose ties to foreign institutions in their grant applications. It is arguably the boldest of several steps federal research agencies are taking to comply with a new law that aims to boost US technological innovation – and prevent China and other foreign governments from pilfering federally funded research.

The CHIPS and Science Act, signed by President Joe Biden on 9 August, appropriates $ 52 billion over 5 years to stimulate research, training, and manufacturing in microelectronics — and promises tens of billions more for fundamental research in many fields. Along with those investments is a mandate to strengthen research security (see sidebar, below).

In recent years, lawmakers and others have faulted federal research agencies for failing to be more vigilant against potential security problems. The list includes situations in which grantees have foreign funding that comes with restrictions on publication or that creates a “conflict of commitment” for a scientist employed by a US-funded entity. China’s aggressive recruiting of US scientists, many of Chinese ancestry, has been a particular concern.

In June 2018, the National Institutes of Health began to more aggressively enforce existing rules requiring grantees to disclose any foreign ties, resulting in sanctions against some scientists and the return of some grant funds. Five months later, the US Department of Justice launched the China Initiative, a law enforcement campaign to thwart economic espionage by the Chinese government. It has resulted in the prosecution of some two dozen academic researchers with links to Chinese institutions. In recent years research units within the departments of energy and defense have created what they call a “risk matrix” to help identify potential security threats to research they are funding.

The CHIPS act enshrines some of those practices into law as well as requiring agencies to assess the types of research most vulnerable to theft, provide more training to scientists on how to reduce security risks, and gather more information from grantee institutions. It also bars scientists employed by the US government from joining a talent recruitment program run by any other country and prohibits federal grantees from participating in talent programs funded by government entities in China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.

At NSF, officials have decided to turn to big data to help safeguard the agency’s $ 7 billion research portfolio. The agency already reviews the biosketches that accompany each grant proposal and provide basic information about each applicant and key members of their team, including institutional affiliations, collaborations, areas of research, and geographic location. Going forward, NSF will compare what applicants have disclosed with information contained in two commercial databases of scientific publications — the Web of Science and Scopus — as well as US patent applications.

NSF says its goal is to spot potential red flags, including omissions or inconsistencies that could violate its policies. Of particular concern would be an NSF grantee who has listed participation in a foreign talent recruitment program in a published paper — but not disclosed that tie to NSF.

“Very often the researcher will acknowledge one of these talent plans in their paper because it’s a requirement in their contract to do so,” says Rebecca Keiser, head of NSF’s office of research security. “So now we’ll be able to find that through data analytics.”

NSF will take a closer look at any discrepancies it finds, Keiser says, and then reach out to the researcher’s institution for more information. (To this referred point, NSF program staff has individual cases to the agency’s independent inspector general, who then decides whether to investigate.) “We will ask an institution to work with us to understand whatever it is we have found,” she says.

University administrators first got wind of NSF’s plans in November 2021 when the agency put out a public notice of its intention to create a new “system of records.” But NSF has yet to spell out exactly what information it will collect and how it will manage those data.

That has prompted some anxiety among academic researchers. The Council of Governmental Relations (COGR), which tracks the impact of federal regulations on academic research for its 200-plus member institutions, has expressed concern about who would have access to the data files and how NSF would validate their accuracy. “We’re still waiting to learn the rules of the road that apply to this new system of records,” says COGR’s Kristin West.

COGR would like institutions to have the chance to vet any discrepancies that NSF finds before the agency begins to ask questions. But NSF’s Keiser says that won’t be possible, because the information it collects from grant applications is confidential.

NSF plans to make its data-mining algorithms available to institutions so they can do their own analyzes and resolve potential disclosure issues before they come to NSF’s attention. “It’s a research tool, and we want everybody to have access to it,” Keizer says.

That tool could also be a boon to scientists, Keizer says, by helping them identify other groups doing similar research and opening the door to possible collaborations. As Keiser imagines it, “We might call the university and say, ‘Hey, the analytics found this really high-impact project you may not know about. Isn’t that awesome? ‘”

Keizer estimates she needs four people to carry out the analytics, do the “human validation,” and then interact with the academic community, although she notes that her office’s current budget is insufficient to meet that staffing level, which is mandated by the CHIPS act . Even so, Keiser says, a “creative use” of existing resources may allow her to launch the data mining project before the end of the year.

Related story

What else you need to know about the new security requirements

By Jeffrey Mervis

The CHIPS and Science Act contains several security-related provisions that will affect researchers at institutions that receive federal funding. Here are some major changes or additions to existing policies it includes, as well as some proposals that didn’t make it into the final bill that could still see action by Congress.


This fall the National Science Foundation (NSF) expects to make four awards, totaling $ 1.5 million, to develop training modules on research security for all federal grantees. The CHIPS act makes the training mandatory not just for graduate students and postdocs, but also principal investigators and other seasoned faculty members. The National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy, and Department of Defense (DOD) are partnering with NSF in choosing the grantees.

Risk analysis

The law orders NSF to make an award to an independent organization to create a risk analysis center that will be a clearinghouse and forum to discuss research security. One goal is to identify the research areas of greatest interest to a foreign power seeking to enhance its economic or military might. Membership fees from participating institutions are expected to pay membership fees to finance the center’s operations.

Foreign gifts

Some legislators have accused universities of ceding control over faculty appointments, research agendas, and curricula to foreign governments in exchange for a charitable donation. The CHIPS act tackles the issue by requiring NSF grantees to report any gifts exceeding $ 50,000 from a foreign entity and giving NSF the authority to ask for a copy of such agreements.

Confucius Institutes

The new law also blocks NSF from funding any institution that operates language and cultural centers funded by China’s Ministry of Education. The number of such centers, typically called Confucius Institutes, has plummeted in past decade from more than 100 to less than two dozen after US policymakers accused the Chinese government of using them for political ends. That decline was accelerated after DOD banned US universities with such institutes from receiving DOD funding for language training. Both NSF and DOD can turn the money spigot back on by granting a waiver.

What’s still on the table

Early drafts of the CHIPS and Science Act contained other provisions that university administrators felt would be burdensome or would duplicate work by other agencies, including restrictions on immigration, closer scrutiny of foreign gifts, and a new White House body to manage research security. They were relieved when that language was removed from the final bill. But those shelved ideas could be included in legislation that Congress will take up after the midterm elections in November, science lobbyists say.

“I’m convinced some of them will be back,” says Tobin Smith of the Association of American Universities (AAU). “So we’re not out of the woods.”

Speaking recently at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s science, technology, and security roundtable, Smith said one especially troubling provision would have empowered an existing government panel, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), to review gifts to universities from foreign entities that support research in certain fields deemed important to US security. This month, President Joe Biden’s administration issued an executive order giving CFIUS the authority to review any foreign investments in US companies relating to these so-called “critical technologies,” such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing. But that review doesn’t cover charitable contributions to universities, Smith told the roundtable.

Another jettisoned provision would have required individual faculty members to report any foreign gift they receive. And a separate amendment would have lowered the floor for universities to report any foreign gift from $ 250,000 to $ 50,000. Congressional negotiators also dropped a lengthy provision approved earlier by the Senate that would have made failure to disclose foreign sources of research support a criminal offense, with prison sentences for those found guilty. The abandoned legislation, spearheaded by Senator Rob Portman (R – OH), also would have made it easier for the Department of State to reject visa applications from foreign scientists deemed a threat to the country and created an interagency council on research security chaired by the White House budget office. AAU and other higher education groups have argued that such a council would duplicate work being done by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which is deciding how to implement a presidential order on research security issued in January 2021.

One likely vehicle for reviving some of these provisions is the annual reauthorization of programs at DOD, which in the past has included new federal mandates on research security. Another is one of the 12 appropriations bills that set spending in the 2023 fiscal year. Both the defense and spending bills are regarded as must-pass legislation. –JM

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