Washington Update

National Science Board Holds Session on Science and Security

By: Benjamin Krinsky
Thursday, August 15, 2019

On July 18, the National Science Board hosted a session on science and security issues. Panelists were Rebecca Kaiser, PhD, Head of the Office of International Science and Engineering at the National Science Foundation; Maria Zuber, PhD, MIT Vice President for Research and NSB member; Tobin Smith, Vice President for Policy at the Association of American Universities; Arthur Bienenstock, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Photon Science at Stanford University and NSB member; and Kelvin Droegemeier, PhD, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

Though the discussion focused on recent security challenges, all panelists voiced unequivocal support for the benefits that openness in research, global collaboration, and international scholars and students bring to the U.S. research enterprise.

While emphasizing the importance of international collaboration for science to flourish, Dr. Kaiser acknowledged that the U.S. faces serious challenges to the integrity of basic research. She outlined NSF policies to address a number of security and research integrity issues and additional steps to mitigate risks, including an ongoing study by the JASON advisory group  to be released by year’s end. The agency also participates in the National Science and Technology Council subcommittee on research protection, along with OSTP and other agencies.

Dr. Zuber and Mr. Smith updated the board on university actions regarding foreign influence. At MIT, new procedures are being implemented to review potential research collaborations with entities from China, Saudi Arabia, and Russia – though this country list could be modified in the future. The new procedures consider both U.S. national security and competitiveness, as well as political, civil, and human rights in the identified countries.

Dr. Zuber addressed the importance of existing research regulations to protect national security, such as the system for classifying sensitive research. She spoke of the need for uniform rules and guidance among federal agencies, and, as much as possible, transparency from federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies about the scope and nature of threats to university research from foreign governments.

In his remarks, Mr. Smith highlighted additional actions universities are undertaking to address challenges in the global environment. In a survey of their members, both AAU and the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU) identified a set of specific steps institutions can take. These include:

  • Working with federal law enforcement and security agencies as problems arise
  • Ensuring university compliance with various laws and regulations including those on export control and privacy
  • Disclosure of faculty relationships with foreign entities and sources of support
  • Improved screening of visitors to university campuses
  • Review of faculty travel policies
  • Expanded training for faculty, students, and postdocs about research security issues
  • Putting proper cybersecurity practices and infrastructure in place.

Dr. Bienenstock’s presentation focused on international competition. He highlighted potentially alarming trends in U.S. research expenditures compared with other countries, and a shortage of STEM qualified workers. He recommended that restrictions on international collaboration be done on a case-by-case basis, after careful consideration of their potential costs. He said the U.S. must recommit to robustly funding scientific research and education, including state support for public universities.

OSTP Director Dr. Droegemeier outlined a new initiative, the Joint Committee on the Research Environments, or JCORE. Four subcommittees will broadly evaluate and provide guidance in key areas:  research security; reducing research administrative burden; creating safe, accommodating, and inclusive research environments; and research rigor and integrity.

Regarding security, Dr. Droegemeier emphasized the importance of effective communication with research institutions and other stakeholders about the nature of specific threats. He also mentioned OSTP’s role in developing uniform disclosure rules across federal agencies, and the need to develop methodologies for risk assessment.

The session concluded with a brief question-and-answer period. NSB members complimented the panel and several suggested that a broad overview of science and security issues like this one should be shared widely, including with researchers and state legislatures nationwide.