During the Department of Energy’s Biological and Environmental Research Advisory Council meeting on April 25, Steve Binkley, deputy director of the DOE Office of Science, discussed new DOE policies to decrease foreign influence and espionage related to the agency’s supported research and national labs. Since August, the U.S. Congress has pushed the DOE and other federal science agencies to issue new policies to reduce foreign espionage and rampant intellectual property theft by other countries.
U.S. scientists are increasingly worried that global collaborations will be hampered and that foreign scientists working in the U.S. are being unfairly targeted. The American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s Public Affairs Advisory Committee addressed these issues during the BERAC meeting by submitting a public comment voicing its concern that the latest policy updates are disrupting vital global collaboration and discouraging foreign scientists from working in the U.S.
While the public comment acknowledged the importance of protecting U.S. national security interests, it also questioned how these new policies would be publicized and administered, whether these policies would be in line with new policies from other federal science agencies, and how the science agency will address impact of these policies on global scientific collaboration. These questions were not answered by members of BERAC or DOE staff. Read the full ASBMB PAAC statement here.
During Binkley’s morning presentation regarding the DOE policy changes, he acknowledged a memo sent out on Jan. 31 outlining a new policy that that would restrict employees, contractors and grantees from participating in foreign talent-recruitment programs, such as China’s Thousand Talents program. The Thousand Talents program is a state-run recruitment initiative to attract Chinese scientists back to China with lucrative grants, high-level positions and lab space. According to the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology chairman, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, China has used recruits from this program to steal intellectual property.
Binkley said that, if scientists are receiving funding from such programs, they will not be eligible for federal grants. Binkley also said that certain types of technology and research, such as CRISPR-CAS9 technology and nuclear research, will undergo additional layers of scrutiny to prevent intellectual property theft and espionage that could risk U.S. national security. Although details of these new security measures were not discussed, Binkley said that implementation of these measures will occur in the next six months.
The National Institutes of Health sent letters to more than 50 research institutions asking for more information on foreign ties of specific scientists. How scientists were chosen for this list remains unclear. The investigation has already resulted in the firing of three faculty members from MD Anderson Cancer Center over concerns of data theft.
To illustrate the DOE’s willingness to collaborate with foreign scientists in spite of these new policies, Binkley stated that the DOE Office of Science has 62 formal international cooperative agreements with 16 countries, including China and Russia.
The DOE Office of Science is the largest funder of physical science, and its Biological and Environmental Research program supports and funds 25,000 scientists, a number of whom are biochemists and molecular biologists. More than 36,000 researchers each year utilize resources from the national labs under BER, which include the Joint Genome Institute and the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory. In recent months, the DOE and other federal science agencies, such as the NIH, have been updating their policies to address intellectual property theft and failure by scientists to disclose financial ties and collaborations with foreign governments. U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has been a staunch proponent of these efforts, pushing science agencies to protect research that could affect U.S. national security.