Meet the person in charge of protecting American research

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The world of research has a big nut to crack. How to maintain security of research results without spoiling the international collaboration necessary for scientific advancement. The National Science Foundation has appointed someone to deal with that very question. Chief of research security strategy and policy, Rebecca Spyke Keiser, spoke to the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Good to have you on.

Rebecca Spyke Keiser: Thank you, Tom. Good to be here.

Tom Temin: What are the issues in security of research from the National Science Foundation standpoint?

Rebecca Spyke Keiser: Well, I’ll tell you, the FBI came knocking on our door at the beginning of 2018. And as you can imagine, as a basic research funding agency, we usually don’t get very many calls from the FBI. And they came and they said that there were some issues going on in the area of basic research and it was from foreign influence, and we didn’t really believe them because we do open research. We require all of the data to be made open, and it’s so basic. It’s not in the area of intellectual property development yet. Unfortunately, since that time, we have seen more and more issues, and indeed they are in the area of basic research. And they’re mostly because of U.S. researchers receiving funding from foreign governments, usually from the Chinese government, and not telling their home institution and not telling us. And this is the equivalent of cheating because they’re receiving money from the National Science Foundation and they’re receiving money from another entity. And they’re not telling us that they’re getting this money, actually ending up, resulting in the misuse of NSF funding. Sometimes it’s using NSF funding to travel to another country and perform work in another country without telling us. Sometimes it’s using the money for something that’s completely different from what they proposed to do. And the’s issues, unfortunately, are increasing in scale and scope. And so we’ve been very concerned.

Tom Temin: It sounds like China has enough money to almost buy off certain scientists that are prone to that kind of thing.

Rebecca Spyke Keiser: It really is. What we found is that the Chinese government has targeted very accomplished U.S. researchers, and it’s because, of course they have the knowledge they have the networks and they have the skill set that the government wants. Now I have to say that there’s nothing wrong with trying to attract highly talented people. The problem is doing it in such a way that is behind the scenes, basically offering employment to U.S. researchers in addition to their U.S. employment and telling them they can’t tell anybody about it, offering large amounts of money without disclosing it and double dipping. So getting money from the National Science Foundation, and getting money from another entity to pretty much do the same work. And so there’s nothing really collaborative about that,

Tom Temin: Sure, and does the scope of your position also include intellectual property theft?

Rebecca Spyke Keiser: So in some ways it does. Because we’re in the area of basic research, it is more knowledge driven, and it’s not so much in the area of applied. However, what we are seeing is theft of ideas. So there have been instances where proposals to NSF, the ideas that are submitted to NSF, which we hold very closely we don’t make public. We find that they get taken or appropriated by someone who didn’t have that idea. So we’ll see proposals with the exact same language from two different researchers, and you think, hmm how did that happen? The ideas got taken. We’ll also see abstracts and summaries of research that are issued by a Chinese funding entity that are exactly the same as what has been submitted or funded by NSF. So it’s really the stealing of knowledge and ideas.

Tom Temin: So what do you plan to do about it? You’ve got this job of overseeing and advising on this problem. What are some of the strategies?

Rebecca Spyke Keiser: Well, first, we need to emphasize disclosure. Disclose disclose, disclose. When folks propose to the Natural Signs Foundation, since 1978 they have been required to disclose all sources of research support, both foreign and domestic, and all affiliations and appointments, whether they’re with their home institution or elsewhere. What we found is that there was a variety of different types of understanding about what we required. We’ve always required that, we thought we were very clear. All means all, tell us everything that you’re doing and all the money that you’re getting. But some researchers didn’t quite understand it that way. So in our 2020 guidance out to proposers, we feel that where is clear as we possibly can about disclosure and what needs to be told to us, and also told to their home institutions. So that’s number one. Number two, we’re going through quite the education and communication campaign. Because a lot of these issues that I’m talking about stem from these foreign talent recruitment programs. You might have heard of the Thousand Talents program that the Chinese government implements, while the Chinese government actually has about 200 of these types of programs, and they recruit to U.S. researchers and require U.S. researchers to sign contracts with the Chinese government that often have very highly questionable terms, things like all knowledge and IP that’s created needs to be provided only to the Chinese government, that they can’t disclose the terms of the contract anyone, etc. And so we’re working with U,S. institutions to convey to the research community. Be careful. Be careful in regarding what you sign, because you’re signing things that are against the very basics of research, integrity, of openness and transparency and merit based competition.

Tom Temin: Plus, from a U.S, standpoint, it is brain power just being siphoned off that really doesn’t belong to China, in that sense.

Rebecca Spyke Keiser: You got it. I mean, there’s a big difference between collaboration and these types of contracts in collaborations. Both sides contribute intellectually to the research. Both sides benefit from the research. This is a one way street. It’s knowledge going directly over to the Chinese government without any benefit to the U.S. research community. And that’s very concerning to us.

Tom Temin: And recently this came to light with a Harvard egghead who was very respected in his field internationally, and he could end up in prison for all of this. Do we have some sense of what kind of money it takes to buy off someone like that?

Rebecca Spyke Keiser: Well, I have to say it’s quite surprising. I mean, I read the indictment and I read all the information about that case, and that particular researcher has not received NSF funding in recent years. However, it was a significant amount of funding, but really was it enough to compromise a department chair high level position at Harvard. I don’t know. That’s why we’re thinking there have to be other motivations besides just the financial. And you might have seen that we NSF commissioned a report from a very renowned group called The JASON. And these are scientists who also have close contacts with the security community in the United States. And they pointed to different motivations that these researchers might have regarding. You know why they would sign these contracts, why they would accept this funding. One of the motivations is honor. It is really a huge honor to be awarded this renowned title in China, as well as not just the funding but well equipped labs over their highly staffed with very skilled research assistance and that type of things very appealing two researchers. And the second reason is almost like putting a frog in water and slowly raising the temperature. A lot of times I think researchers don’t really realize what they’re signing up to. And they’re told that what the contract says isn’t what they really need to do. And then the heat gets raised and the pressure gets raised to do more and more.

Tom Temin: It’s almost like the Mafia.

Rebecca Spyke Keiser: Yeah, it’s interesting, isn’t it? It’s It’s very strange, and I think it’s very hard for us in the U.S. to understand this because again, this is research, and this is research that goes through the honor system, and everybody has to play by the same rules for the system to work. So when people don’t play by the rules, the whole system could break down. And I think that’s what we’re very concerned about.

Tom Temin: And for it’s grants, which I guess run to the billions every year, do you have some sort of analytical tools or data analytics to be able to spot where this might be occurring?

Rebecca Spyke Keiser: We work very closely with our office of Inspector General. So we do. We have an $8 billion budget a year, and 93% of that money goes out the door to the research community in grants. And so we have to be very careful about the taxpayer dollar. So our Office of Inspector General, they’re swamped, as you can imagine, with investigations. We work very closely with Inspector General and the FBI, who also uncover information. And I have to say that several whistle blowers have come forward to us from the community conveying information, because it affects them as well, because it’s just not fair. So our load is growing. That being said, I don’t think we’ll ever truly know the scale in the scope of what’s happening here because so much is in the area of non-disclosure. We don’t know when people don’t tell us, and trying to find that out is extremely challenging.

Tom Temin: Rebecca Spyke Keiser is chief of research, security strategy and policy at the National Science Foundation. Thanks so much for joining me.

Rebecca Spyke Keiser: Thank you for having me.

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