University-Industry Engagement Week

U.S. expanding disclosure requirements for foreign research ties

By David Schwartz
Published: April 13th, 2021

As if compliance rules for foreign research ties weren’t already a chore, federal agencies are expanding disclosure requirements for the scientists they fund — and getting some pushback from university groups concerned about the scope of information sought.

The new requirements, outlined in National Security Presidential Memorandum-33 and issued in the final week of the Trump administration, establish minimum standards across all agencies for what information must be collected. They were developed as part of a crackdown on violations that have led to the sanctioning, firing, or arrest of dozens of scientists after they were found to have undisclosed ties to foreign institutions, mainly in China.

The Biden administration is continuing the new policy, and last month the National Institutes of Health expanded its disclosure requirements accordingly.

NSPM-33 delineates responsibilities for research security policy across the government, including by establishing what agencies must ask scientists to report when applying for funding or participating in certain federal research activities. The disclosure requirements apply to principal investigators as well as to “other senior/key personnel” on federal grants, agency program officers, researchers at federal labs, peer reviewers, and advisory committee members.

By January 2022, agencies must require all these types of personnel to indicate whether they have applied to or currently participate in any “foreign government-sponsored talent recruitment program.” Agencies must also require personnel to disclose the underlying contract upon request.

More broadly, PIs and other key research personnel must disclose employment relationships and appointments, including honorary and unpaid positions. In addition, all personnel except peer reviewers and advisory committee members must disclose all sources of “other support” they receive related to their research, including in-kind contributions with no monetary value.

The information required by the new rule must be provided to the agency when the personnel apply for funding, are hired, or are “assigned relevant duties,” with updates made at least annually.

NSPM-33 also outlines various potential enforcement actions, ranging from removing violators from grants to prohibiting them from receiving federal funding in the future. Alongside the memorandum, the Office of Science Technology and Policy released a report outlining “recommended practices” for non-federal research institutions to improve research security and integrity. The report suggests that such institutions collect disclosure information from a broader set of personnel than those identified in NSPM-33, including postdocs, graduate students involved in research, and visiting scholars who participate in research for extended periods.

Even prior to NSPM-33’s release, several agencies had begun to substantially clarify or expand their disclosure policies, including the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, Department of Defense, and NIH.

Research administrators have struggled to keep up with the changes and have pushed for the government to harmonize requirements across agencies.

University associations have raised concerns about differences in scope between the memorandum and a provision in the most recent National Defense Authorization Act, which also sets out minimum disclosure requirements.

Commenting on the new NIH policy specifically, the Council on Governmental Regulations expressed concerns about “the time and burden associated with collecting and uploading contracts/agreements and privacy concerns related to nondisclosure or confidentiality requirements in those agreements.” It also identified a “lack of clarity regarding what type of consulting activities must be disclosed [and] difficulty in determining when certain students who work in labs should be considered as ‘in-kind’ support.”

COGR also listed out differences between NSPM-33, the recommended practices report, and the NDAA provisions, as well as differences between the current NSF and NIH policies. It has asked the White House to modify NSPM-33 so that it aligns with the NDAA provision and to “include a carve-out from the requirement to report in-kind support for academic collaborations that exist solely for the purpose of co-authorship of fundamental research where the results will be made publicly available” – an exception the Department of Energy has already adopted.

Source: AIP

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