International Risk Management FAQ

Questions

Foreign Influence in research on U.S. university campuses is unclear and can encompass so many things. Can you help me understand what it is and why it should matter to me?

     Foreign influence encompasses activities that run counter to our core values in research integrity: objectivity, honesty, openness, accountability, fairness, and stewardship. When you host foreign graduate students, postdocs, and visiting scholars, you should be aware of certain activities that fall within the definition of "foreign influence." These activities can take the form of reward, deception, coercion, or theft. Reward is the offering of material or social goods in exchange for desired behavior; deception is providing incomplete, incorrect information on an application, proposal, or publication for the purpose of hiding or directing attention away from some activity; coercion is the threat of harm or disadvantage for the purpose of enforcing compliance with a demand; and theft is the taking of a physical object or protected idea without permission of the owner.*

     Rewards can be recruitment programs, like Foreign Government Talent Recruitment Programs (FGTRPs), scholarships that provide tuition and stipend support for graduate students attending U.S. universities, or fellowships for postdoctoral scholars attending U.S. universities. None of these are necessarily a problem, except when they're used to compromise research integrity, such as promoting the unauthorized sharing of information, theft of material goods (e.g., samples or prototypes), etc.   

     Deception means practices in the research context that deliberately falsify or omit information to gain an advantage. Deception by omission can include the failure to report rewards or gifts, institutional affiliation, courses completed, etc. Deception by falsification can include providing deliberately false information on grant proposals or graduate school applications to increase competitiveness. Deception by omission is the most common type of omission, especially as foreign actors learn more about how the U.S. Government is confronting the issue of research security. For instance, an applicant may omit coursework in an area that they believe belongs on a government list of protected technologies (e.g., hypersonics). 

     Coercion is the practice of forcing an individual to do something by force or threat. The threat may be implicit or explicit and can range from social condemnation to physical harm. These threats can range from physical threats against a foreign student who does not toe the line on official governmental narratives from their home country (see, for example: Purdue Responds to Alleged Harassment of Chinese Student) to threats that scholarship or fellowship funds will be withheld if they do not report on their activities, gather requested information, or agree to return to their home country after completing their studies.

      Theft is the taking of intellectual property (IP) without permission of the principal investigator or host institution. Samples, prototypes, software, written documents, and ideas all constitute IP and, in fundamental research, these are the currency of academic achievement and their loss can affect promotions, tenure, and grant decisions. In contrast with private sector IP loss, financial considerations are usually secondary, but can be substantial to the university and investigator if an invention to be patented is compromised. Inadvertent IP theft can also occur if a scholar communicates the research group's activities outside the group. Principal investigators should ensure all members of their research teams - especially foreign members who may have different practices at home - understand expectations surrounding information sharing and data protection. IP theft also occurs when scholars who have been asked to perform a peer review on a publication or grant proposal transmit that confidential information to an unauthorized recipient.

*Definition and several subsequent definitions taken from the National Science Foundation (NSF) 2019 JASON report: Fundamental Research Security (nsf.gov)

Okay, that all makes sense. But what's the consequence if we let these things happen?

Obviously, there are different consequences for the varied scenarios or activities laid out above. However, the university is most vulnerable if one of its researchers omits pertinent information about foreign nexuses on a grant application. Not only will the researcher be subject to criminal and civil penalties (see Foreign Influence in the News), but the university itself could be implicated under the False Claims Act (FCA), which governs materially false statements or omissions that could "influence, or be capable of influencing, the payment or receipt of money or property." There are many examples of universities that have had to repay enormous sums of money, i.e., up to three times the amount of the original award ("treble damage") plus additional penalties for each paid false invoice. It is critical that principal investigators and other key or senior research personnel be completely transparent in the university's conflict of interest forms and grant proposal disclosures. If, at any stage of an application, you are unsure whether you have an outside interest that should be disclosed, contact our office or simply err on the side of caution and disclose it.

 

More information on disclosure requirements can be found here and here.