How to keep science open – but also secure? G7 nations work on an answer

07 Jul 2022 | News

Following June summit, leading nations are coordinating efforts to improve research security without sacrificing science collaborations.  ‘We want to keep the open research system’

Bettina Stark-Watzinger, Federal Minister of Education and Research, welcomed her G7 colleagues at the Ministerial Meeting in Frankfurt. Alondra Nelson, US representative to the meeting, is second from left. Photo: alliance/dpa

In recent years, the world’s leading industrialised nations have been moving to defend their science and technology from perceived threats from China, Russia and elsewhere. Now, they’re trying to counter another risk: that their security measures could harm their own science.

Across the Group of 7 leading industrialised nations, officials are revising grant guidelines, planning workshops and training for scientists, and trying to coordinate national efforts so that, whatever security measures arise, they aren’t so paranoid that they crimp collaboration among their own scientists.

“We cannot allow our actions to do more harm to ourselves than any competitor or adversary would,” is how Alondra Nelson, acting director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, put it during the meeting last month in Frankfurt of G7 science ministers.

Though security is needed, “We should not be closing off from one another,” said one Biden administration official.

At stake, experts say, is the productivity of much of the world’s research network, in the thousands of R&D collaborations going on among the US, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Canada and UK, and extending to their smaller allies from Denmark to New Zealand – together, a majority of the $2 trillion a year the world spends on R&D. COVID-19 vaccines, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and climate technologies are just a few of the recent products of this unprecedented flow of ideas and talent across borders.

Barriers rising

But, many researchers complain, geopolitical tensions are pushing up barriers to that collaboration. In the US, the Trump administration prosecuted some researchers accused of leaking secrets to China. In Canada, grant applicants must start adding security-risk information about many foreign collaborations – for possible review by security services. The EU, while pushing for new international partners in its €95.5 billion Horizon Europe programme, has been developing its own security policy, under the label ‘As open as possible and as secure as necessary’. And then comes the war in Ukraine, prompting most western governments to restrict scientific and technological collaboration with Russia.

For many researchers, the trend has been depressing. Thomas Schuelke, president of German tech giant Fraunhofer’s US branch, recalls his organisation in 2017 deciding to drop a planned transatlantic collaboration on diamond technologies because it just seemed too difficult to navigate rising export and security controls. And, despite Trump’s departure since then, collaboration – especially on applied, pre-competitive research – remains problematic today. A new National Science Foundation programme to support regional innovation claims to be open to foreign partners, but in fact, “They aren’t presenting it as very inviting” to non-Americans, he says.

“There’s no difference whether it’s Trump, Obama or Biden,” Schuelke says. “We have seen over the past 10 years an increase in the enforcement of export controls” that contribute to difficulties in cross-border collaboration – especially on pre-competitive research. “We are blocking each other from effective collaboration.”

What’s needed instead, he says, is a new system of pre-competitive research collaboration “that will yield positive results for everybody, and everybody can participate so long as they follow the rules.”

A step towards such a system was taken last month in Frankfurt, when G7 ministers met to discuss research collaboration. The formal, post-meeting communique is full of broad declarations, such as, “We believe that openness is fundamental, security is essential and freedom and integrity are crucial.”

But the specifics, US officials say, are fairly straightforward. All the G7 governments agree they must ensure research security, but they think it can be done without also impairing academic freedom and open science. The key is reinforcing what they call research integrity and transparency – making sure that all research is conducted ethically, and all possible conflicts of interest are disclosed.

Says one Biden administration official, “We wanted to put the focus on this notion that the solution is not closing ourselves down but, rather, the solution is sunlight” – or bringing any possible risks, conflicts or ethical problems out into the open before a collaboration begins.

US disclosure rules

What that means in practice for the US science system is currently under development in Washington. In January, the White House’s National Science and Technology Council issued a "guidance” document, describing how US funding agencies will be revising their grant application forms to make it clearer what kinds of conflicts and risks a researcher must disclose.

The aim isn’t just to discourage undisclosed Chinese funding or Russian collaborations. The government also wants researchers to disclose more clearly other commitments – perhaps to another funder, or a corporate partner with which they’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement – that might affect an applicant’s ability to perform research for which they’re seeking a grant. Of course, some applicants might deliberately hide such problems: the National Science Foundation says it has identified about such 40 cases among its thousands of grants. But the more common problem, officials say, is researchers simply misunderstanding the disclosure forms or making mistakes.

Rebecca Keiser, in charge of research security at NSF, says the agency this year has been consulting with other US funders on coordinating and clarifying their disclosure requirements. They aim for a standardised data set for grant applicants – curriculum vitae, conflicts, commitments – across all federal funders, for which private software companies can develop user-friendly tools. “We want to eliminate the possibility of simple mistakes” in applications, says Keiser. She hopes the result will be a decrease, rather than an increase, in enforcement proceedings.

Details of the new system will be published by the end of this summer for public comment. At the same time, Keiser says, NSF has asked the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine to organise an “exploratory” workshop this autumn to re-examine the balance between openness and security in American science. Details have yet to be resolved, but “we may end up finding some things that might help NSF in how we structure some of our funding programmes,” she says.

G7 work underway

All that’s coming out of Washington – but the Frankfurt G7 meeting in June highlighted similar efforts they are all undertaking to re-scope how openness and security can co-exist in science. The ministers agreed on three steps, to be carried out by a special G7 subcommittee on research security.

The first step is to agree among the allies on a clear definition of what they mean by research security and integrity – in essence, spelling out the principles by which they think good, ethical and secure research should be conducted. Second is a “virtual academy” that the EU volunteered to set up, to educate researchers about the principles. And third is a “toolkit” on research security: a compendium of various national policies and procedures for ensuring security across the G7. Officials say the principles are nearly finished, and the academy and toolkit are expected to be announced by the end of this year.

“The whole point of this,” says Keiser, “is that this is not only a US problem; we have to deal with this together. Each country may decide on a different approach, but we want to coordinate on these approaches,” so that cross-border collaborations can continue unimpeded.

A Biden administration official agreed, “Security and openness are not trade-offs. We have to do both. And we have to do these things in ways that are consistent with our values – that avoids any prejudice or xenophobia, against Asian Americans” for instance. President Biden “is one of the biggest believers in the power of science and technology and innovation. But he also believes that we should do this together with our friends and allies and partners.”

“Openness is key,” says Keiser. “We want to keep the open research system. That’s what made us successful, made our partner countries successful.”

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