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Protecting Federal Research from Foreign Influence

Posted on January 11, 2021

Federally-funded researchers may face conflicts of interest if they receive funding or other benefits from foreign entities, which may be looking to gain access to that research. One such example was highlighted in May 2020, when a former researcher at a prominent U.S. university pleaded guilty to filing a false tax return that did not include hundreds of thousands of dollars in foreign income from a Chinese-government talent recruitment program. This Chinese program provides U.S. researchers with salaries and other benefits in exchange for sharing their research findings with China.

This case is just 1 example of how foreign influence can be used to divert U.S. research to other countries. And with the U.S. government spending a reported $42 billion on university science and engineering research in fiscal year 2018, safeguarding this work is critical.   

In today’s WatchBlog, we take a closer look at our report on federal conflict of interest policies and how they may help agencies prevent undue foreign influence in federally funded research.


Photo of test tubes.


What is a conflict of interest in federally funded research?

Researchers who get federal funding have to watch out for 2 kinds of conflict of interest: financial and non-financial.

In a financial conflict of interest, an individual, or the individual’s spouse or children, has a financial interest or relationship that could directly and significantly affect the design, conduct, reporting, or funding of research. The figure below illustrates how universities manage financial conflicts of interest.

Figure 1: Generalized University Processes for Identifying and Mitigating Potential Financial Conflicts of Interest



Graphic showing the process of identifying conflicts of interest in federally funded research

In a non-financial conflict of interest, an individual faces conflicting obligations from multiple employers or other entities. For example, an individual may be required to improperly share information with, or withhold information from, an employer or funding agency, which threatens research security and integrity.

What risks does this influence pose?

In addition to the issues discussed above, there is a concern that foreign students working at a U.S. research university may share their findings, or other sensitive knowledge, with their home countries before the study results are officially released, thus weakening the United States’ efforts and enabling other countries to gain benefits.

How are federal agencies responding?

Our latest report reviewed 5 agencies—which together accounted for almost 90% of all federal research and development expenditures at universities in fiscal year 2018. We found that 3 of the 5 have agency-wide conflict of interest policies, while the remaining 2 do not. However, no agency has a policy that specifically addresses or defines non-financial interests.

With more detailed policies, agencies might be better positioned to identify conflicts of interest, which may help them identify cases of undue foreign influence.

When conflicts of interest are discovered, agencies can take a range of administrative or enforcement actions, including asking the researcher’s university to open an investigation, suspending the grant, or referring the case for prosecution.

In our report, we recommended that agencies establish agency-wide policies on conflicts of interest, and that they define non-financial interests, among other recommendations. These steps could help researchers better understand what they need to report, giving agencies more complete information to assess the risk of foreign influence. Foreign cooperation is an important part of U.S. research and can enhance the free exchange of ideas, leading to new discoveries. By implementing the above recommendations, agencies and universities can foster such collaboration, while protecting federal research from undue foreign influence. 

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