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Can we keep science open?

Academic research leads weigh in to the debate on foreign collaboration

Anthony BoccanfusoBy Anthony Boccanfuso

Open science is an academic research tradition. So is the practice of recruiting the best students from around the world to conduct research while earning degrees at American universities.

But the tradition of open science has been taking hits over the last 24 months. FBI Director Christopher Wray called the universities who practice it naïve during Senate testimony last spring. The National Science Foundation (NSF) reviewed procedures and issued new requirements and reporting around foreign collaboration. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Justice Department are digging into hundreds of potential economic espionage and intellectual property abuse cases.

Research universities are challenged to strike a balance between keeping basic research open and safeguarding faculty and funders from bad intentions and deceptive practices by foreign governments. Companies that conduct research face similar challenges with their employees and economic and national security espionage.

Earlier this month, UIDP convened a panel in the Bay Area to discuss how university and concerned organizations are adapting research policy and practices to do just that. Randall Hall, vice president of research at the University of Southern California, moderated a stellar group that included Randall Katz, vice chancellor for research at University of California Berkeley; Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association for American Universities; and Wendy Streitz, president of the Council on Governmental Relations. Each panelist weighed in with their perspective, expressing the formidable challenges posed with effectively managing these issues while maintaining world-class research organizations.

Importantly, the problem is not really about safeguarding research that’s considered sensitive or classified. Universities carefully follow security guidelines in these areas. But the boundaries between fundamental and sensitive research are blurring around the edges, and the potential for theft or misuse of intellectual property and research outputs is real. Think about the breakthrough research occurring now in biology, genetics, and quantum computing, and it doesn’t take long to see how fundamental research can also have national security implications.

To untangle the knot, the National Science Foundation (NSF) engaged an independent science advisory group to explore the issues and develop recommendations for keeping basic research open, yet secure. Its report, Fundamental Research Security, (released this month) is a thoughtfully considered examination of the issues and well worth the read.

One theme emerging from the report is the need for universities to become more deliberate about disclosure of commitment—not just conflict of interest—to other entities. Nailing down every commitment a researcher has to an industry research partner, a non-profit organization or a foreign government is a daunting task for most university research departments. But the UIDP panelists acknowledged it’s a needed change; to uphold research integrity, involved parties should be transparent about their connections and commitments.

As NSF and other funding entities consider whether next steps, it’s critical for academic research institutions to share best practices and demonstrate a commitment to overcoming this challenge in an open, collaborative spirit. That’s what we witnessed in the Bay Area earlier this month. Working together, the research community has much to gain by deepening partnerships, engaging in frank discussion, and developing real solutions.