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Sobering warnings have been delivered to the U.S. higher education community over the past several years by national security and law enforcement officials about the threats to campuses from some foreign governments, notably China, seeking to influence, interfere and, in some cases, steal scientific research and intellectual property.

Cases have been brought against professors, scholars and students from a variety of institutions across the country -- including but not limited to the University of Texas; the University of California, Los Angeles; the Illinois Institute of Technology; and the University of Kansas. Not all involve foreign nationals, such as the case announced by the FBI involving Charles M. Lieber, chair of Harvard University’s department of chemistry and chemical biology, who allegedly lied to both the federal government and his own university about his participation in China's Thousand Talents Plan.

As recently as a little over a week ago, a professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville was arrested on charges that he hid his relationship with a Chinese university -- including allegedly providing false assurances to UT that he was not part of any business collaboration involving China -- while receiving research grants from the federal government.

These cases show all colleges and universities that they should not take anything for granted in dealing with issues of research security. There is a sound basis for concerns about illicit technology transfer and undue foreign influence and an urgent need for increasing and maintaining good security policies and practices.

The good news is that many higher education institutions, including those impacted by the current cases, already are taking proactive steps to confront these issues. But all of these incidents serve as a reminder of the need to redouble efforts to ensure that institutions and their faculty members are fully in compliance with the letter and spirit of all federal requirements.

Here are some immediate actions that institutions should take, if they have not done so already.

Establish a working group of key campus personnel to review institutional policies and compliance with existing regulations on a range of issues, including:

  • Compliance with federal grant requirements, particularly for large grants, foreign gift and contract reporting (Section 117 of the Higher Education Act). Also, the currency of campus policies concerning faculty signed agreements and faculty disclosures about obligations to outside entities, and the assessment of critical technologies, if any, under development at your institution.
  • Whether all appropriate steps to protect intellectual property and federally funded research from illegal transfers are being taken, clear and enforceable penalties for violations have been established, and mechanisms are in place to regularly review these policies with faculty and staff members.

Develop a relationship with the local FBI field office. A good working relationship between college and university leaders and agents in such field offices could easily be “the ounce of protection” in case of a problem. If you don’t know the agents at your local FBI office, the agency’s Office of the Private Sector will be happy to connect you.

Educate and train all new and existing faculty and scholars to ensure they are fully aware of all appropriate security, disclosure and intellectual property policies related to contracts with foreign entities.

Ensure campus security and IT personnel have the tools to secure your information. At a minimum, monitor computer networks routinely for suspicious activity, establish virtual private networks (VPNs) for added protection and install intrusion detection systems (IDSs).

Examine carefully any international partnerships. A November 2019 report by the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations recommends that institutions establish a “Know Your Collaborator” culture, based on “best practices in monitoring scientific and research collaboration with foreign nationals and determining whether such collaboration adheres to U.S. scientific research values, especially in the area of research integrity.” The report calls on universities and researchers to know collaborators’ affiliations and research intentions when establishing partnerships.

Communicate fairness and impartiality. Campus leaders, from the president and provost to the dean of students and faculty leadership, must ensure -- and be able to show students, staff and faculty -- that any security protocols being put in place do not unfairly target or engage in ethnic and national profiling.

At the same time, even as colleges and universities take these actions, we in higher education should not relax our commitment to the academic freedom of our institutions, the open nature of the research being performed on our campuses and our rich engagement with the world. We must ensure that U.S. colleges and universities remain a welcoming place for the world’s most talented students and scholars. But performing world-class research and attracting the world’s best international students are not mutually exclusive with taking appropriate steps to maintain the security of our institutions.

It’s worth noting that we are making progress. A few years ago, FBI director Christopher Wray told Congress that colleges were “naïve” about partnerships with China. But by last spring, he noted, "I’m encouraged, actually, by the number of universities around the country that are taking very thoughtful, responsible steps to make sure that they’re not being abused and that their information, proprietary research, confidential information, isn’t stolen -- which is happening, all over the country, and it’s a real problem."

But progress is not guaranteed, nor is it linear; even when colleges and universities take every precaution, things can go wrong. The higher education community must continue to work with national security and law enforcement officials to address these important issues proactively and effectively.

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