US science agency plans new centre for research security

17 Nov 2022 | News

As western worries mount about science and technology leaks to China, the National Science Foundation aims to start an information-sharing service for universities

National Science Foundation

Photo: US National Science Foundation

As part of a western push for research security, the US National Science Foundation is developing plans for a centre to help American universities get and share information about foreign research partners or projects that could jeopardise security.

The centre will have unclassified information that a university or individual researchers could consult to manage the risk of intellectual property theft, security breaches or unethical practices, according to the agency. The centre was authorised in a little-noted section of the recently adopted US Chips and Science Act, but the operating details and budgets, expected to be at least $10 million in its first year, are only now being worked out.

The centre, though funded by NSF and drawing partly on government intelligence, “will be for the use of the research community,” said Rebecca Keiser, the agency’s chief of research security and strategy. “Something that I hear all the time from researchers, from universities, from others is the need for more information” about security risks when recruiting talent or negotiating international partnerships. “We need to be able to give information in an unclassified way. And if we say to somebody, ‘there's information out there, I can't tell you about it, but just believe me,’ that's not helpful.”

A global trend

The initiative parallels other research security systems being set up in the UK and Canada, and fits into a broader effort by them and other Group of 7 leading countries to boost their research security. The European Commission is due to set up a security “toolkit” for researchers as part of that G7 initiative.

The biggest target for these efforts is China – but not solely; Russia, Iran and a few other countries are also cited as security risks. As global R&D spending has soared past $2 trillion a year and technology underpins economies, many western governments have become worried – some say, paranoid – about instances of scientific spying, intellectual property theft, misuse of research or compromised security secrets.

For instance, in the Trump administration the Justice Department launched a series of investigations against mostly Chinese-born scientists or their research partners for failing to disclose Chinese ties in US grant applications. That campaign was dropped this year after some embarrassing court setbacks, but government worries about China have continued.

But US university administrators often complain that the government increasingly expects them to police research security but offers little practical help. So, the new centre is intended to do that without compromising classified intelligence – a task that Keiser called “the biggest challenge” in the project.

As an example of the kind of information that might result, she cited a possible notice that some non-governmental organisations are setting up in the US as non-profits but really acting “unethically” for other governments. “This is information that we receive from the intelligence community in an unclassified way,” said Keiser. But in sharing it with universities, the centre would not “name names.” Rather, she said, it would be “overall general information, that some entities are doing this. It’s a risk out there.”

Tools and tips

The centre would also gather tips and from the academic community, and collect “tools” – for instance, how-to practical advice from top universities on how they organise security and ethics reviews. It will also offer a consultation service. As an example, Keiser cited past cases NSF has encountered in which junior researchers didn’t know whom to call for advice when they began to suspect their lab head of questionable conduct.

The legislation requires that the centre be run by an external organisation rather than by NSF itself, for which NSF will open a tender or other public application process. The law requires another trip to Congress to get the starting money approved, but it also authorises the centre to charge membership fees – though Keiser said the agency wants to make its service more broadly available than a members-only club. NSF also has to come up with a good name for the centre: the law calls it a “research security and integrity information sharing and analysis organisation.” Keiser said NSF is in discussion with other US funding agencies about collaborating on the project.

NSF hasn’t yet decided whether it will make the centre available to non-US universities, but “we would love to talk to other countries about coordinating” the effort with them, said Keiser.

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