Federal Research: Agencies Need to Enhance Policies to Address Foreign Influence

GAO-21-130 Published: Dec 17, 2020. Publicly Released: Dec 17, 2020.
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Fast Facts

To protect U.S. investments in scientific research from undue foreign influence, federal agencies should have conflict of interest policies and require researchers to disclose foreign interests.

Two of the 5 agencies we reviewed do not have agency-wide financial conflict of interest policies, and none of the 5 have non-financial policies (e.g., for researchers with multiple professional appointments). But all require researchers to disclose some non-financial interests in grant proposals—like foreign-provided lab space.

We recommended that agencies develop agency-wide conflict of interest policies to help them assess risks of foreign influence.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

U.S. research may be subject to undue foreign influence in cases where a researcher has a foreign conflict of interest (COI). Federal grant-making agencies can address this threat by implementing COI policies and requiring the disclosure of information that may indicate potential conflicts. GAO reviewed five agencies—which together accounted for almost 90 percent of all federal research and development expenditures at universities in fiscal year 2018—and found that three have agency-wide COI policies, while two do not (see figure). The three agencies with existing policies focus on financial interests but do not specifically address or define non-financial interests, such as multiple professional appointments. In the absence of agency-wide COI policies and definitions on non-financial interests, researchers may not fully understand what they need to report on their grant proposals, leaving agencies with incomplete information to assess the risk of foreign influence. GAO found that, regardless of whether an agency has a conflict of interest policy, all five agencies require researchers to disclose information—such as foreign support for their research—as part of the grant proposal that could be used to determine if certain conflicts exist.

Elements of Conflict of Interest (COI) Policies at Agencies with the Most Federal Research Expenditures at Universities

Based on a review of university documents, GAO found that all 11 of the universities in its sample have publicly available financial and non-financial COI policies for federally funded research. These policies often align with the financial COI policies or requirements of the grant-making agencies.

All five agencies have mechanisms to monitor and enforce their policies and disclosure requirements when there is an alleged failure to disclose required information. All agencies rely on universities to monitor financial COI, and most agencies collect non-financial information such as foreign collaborations, that can help determine if conflicts exist. Agencies have also taken actions in cases where they identified researchers who failed to disclose financial or non-financial information. However, three agencies lack written procedures for handling allegations of failure to disclose required information. Written procedures for addressing alleged failure to disclose required information help agencies manage these allegations and consistently apply enforcement actions.

In interviews, stakeholders identified opportunities to improve responses to foreign threats to research, such as harmonizing grant application requirements. Agencies have begun to address such issues.

Why GAO Did This Study

The federal government reportedly expended about $42 billion on science and engineering research at universities in fiscal year 2018. Safeguarding the U.S. research enterprise from threats of foreign influence is of critical importance. Recent reports by GAO and others have noted challenges faced by the research community to combat undue foreign influence, while maintaining an open research environment that fosters collaboration, transparency, and the free exchange of ideas.

GAO was asked to review federal agency and university COI policies and disclosure requirements. In this report, GAO examines (1) COI policies and disclosure requirements at selected agencies and universities that address potential foreign threats, (2) mechanisms to monitor and enforce policies and requirements, and (3) the views of selected stakeholders on how to better address foreign threats to federally funded research. GAO reviewed laws, regulations, federal guidance, and agency and university COI policies and requirements. GAO also interviewed agency officials, university officials, and researchers.

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Recommendations

GAO is making nine recommendations to six agencies, including that grant-making agencies address non-financial conflicts of interest in their COI policies and develop written procedures for addressing cases of failure to disclose required information. Five agencies agreed with GAO's recommendations. The National Science Foundation neither agreed nor disagreed with GAO's recommendation, but identified actions it plans to take in response.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Office of Science and Technology Policy The Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy should work with the Executive Office of the President to issue the guidance that is pending review and expedite the issuance of any additional forthcoming guidance on addressing foreign threats to federally funded research. (Recommendation 1)
Open
OSTP concurred with the recommendation. In January 2021, the White House and OSTP issued the National Security Presidential Memorandum #33 (NSPM-33) on federally-funded research security at federal agencies. In addition, the National Security and Technology Council (NSTC) released an accompanying product on the recommended practices universities, and other research organizations, can implement to strengthen the security and integrity of America's research enterprise. OSTP officials stated that this best practices document was developed by the OSTP Subcommittee on Research Security, in coordination with the NSTC staff, and was reviewed by JCORE. NSPM-33 required all federal research funding agencies to strengthen protections against foreign government interference through standardized disclosure and security requirements, and the coordination of policies and processes with the intelligence community. However, the memorandum did not provide detailed information on what was considered the appropriate information to include in disclosure policies, oversight and enforcement policies, or research security programs. In January 2022, NSTC and the OSTP Subcommittee on Research Security issued guidance for Federal departments and agencies on implementation of NSPM-33 which included general guidance that agencies should apply across their implementation efforts to address these and other key areas identified in NSPM-33. We are reviewing the guidance and awaiting any additional updates from OSTP.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should develop an agency-wide policy on conflict of interest for grants, to address both financial and non-financial conflicts. (Recommendation 2)
Open
DOD concurred with our recommendation. In September 2021, the Department noted that it is working to develop a guidance document (referred to as an instruction document) to DOD's Components setting standards for conflicts of interest, including non-financial conflicts. Department officials said this will involve coordinating with all DOD stakeholders, including the DOD Components. The Department further noted that an existing DOD instruction document on research integrity and misconduct is being revised for this purpose and is expected to be issued by September 2022.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should document procedures, including roles and responsibilities for addressing and enforcing failures to disclose required information, both foreign and domestic.(Recommendation 3)
Open
DOD concurred with our recommendation. In September 2021, the Department noted that it is working to develop a guidance document (referred to as an instruction document) for DOD Components to delineate policies and responsibilities for addressing failures to disclose required information on research awards to academic institutions. Department officials said this process will involve coordinating with all DOD stakeholders, including the DOD Components. The Department further noted that an existing DOD instruction document on research integrity and misconduct is being revised for this purpose and is expected to be issued by September 2022.
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should develop an agency-wide policy on conflict of interest for grants, to address both financial and non-financial conflicts. (Recommendation 4)
Open
DOE concurred with our recommendation. In September 2021, DOE noted that it established a working group, which will continue to work internally to develop interim agency-wide policy regarding financial and non-financial conflicts of interest for recipients of Departmental financial assistance awards. The agency further stated that as it develops this interim guidance, it will continue to work with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy through the Joint Committee on the Research Environment to develop and coordinate guidance for federal agencies on common definitions and best practices for federal science agencies and grantees. DOE stated that the policy was out for comment and the agency planned to issue it in November 2021. We reached out to DOD in February 2022 and are awaiting updates on the agency's actions.
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should document procedures, including roles and responsibilities for addressing and enforcing failures to disclose required information, both foreign and domestic. (Recommendation 5)
Open
DOE concurred with our recommendation. In September 2021, DOE reiterated its intent to identify roles and responsibilities for addressing and enforcing disclosure requirements in its interim policy. DOE stated that the policy was out for comment and the agency planned to issue it in November 2021. We reached out to DOD in February 2022 and are awaiting updates on the agency's actions.
Department of Health and Human Services The Secretary of Health and Human Services should instruct the Director of the National Institutes of Health to update the agency's conflict of interest policy to include a definition on non-financial conflicts, such as the one developed by OSTP, and address these conflicts, both foreign and domestic. (Recommendation 6)
Open
HHS (NIH) concurred with our recommendation. In March 2021, NIH announced updates to its format of the Biographical Sketch and Other Support document for grant applications and certain reports submitted on or after January 25, 2022. For example, a signature is now required from the Program Director/Principal Investigator or other senior/key personnel on the Other Support document to certify the accuracy of the information submitted. In addition, for Other Support submissions that include foreign activities and resources, recipients are required to submit copies of contracts, grants, or any other agreement specific to senior/key personnel foreign appointments and/or employment with a foreign institution as supporting documentation. In September 2021, NIH stated that it planned to provide training to the extramural community on the updates in November 2021. We reached out to NIH in February 2022 and the agency stated it would be providing a status update in May 2022.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration The Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration should update the agency's conflict of interest policy to include a definition on non-financial conflicts, such as the one developed by OSTP, and address these conflicts, both foreign and domestic. (Recommendation 7)
Open
NASA concurred with our recommendation. In January 2022, NASA noted it updated the agency conflict of interest and conflict of commitment disclosure policies, but in light of OSTP's release of implementation guidance for National Security Presidential Memorandum 33 (NSPM-33) in January 2022, the agency would need additional time to coordinate these policies with OSTP and other agencies to ensure uniform requirements. The agency stated it is also awaiting forthcoming standardized disclosure forms from OSTP before finalizing its policies, so it can adopt and implement these standard templates. The agency further noted that it anticipates issuing its policies by July 31, 2022.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration The Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration should document procedures, including roles and responsibilities for addressing and enforcing failures to disclose required information, both foreign and domestic. (Recommendation 8)
Open
NASA concurred with our recommendation and noted in January 2022 that it had begun working on the recommendation, including developing a working group and documenting procedures, including roles and responsibilities for addressing and enforcing failures to disclose required information, both foreign and domestic. NASA noted that in light of OSTP's release of implementation guidance for National Security Presidential Memorandum 33 (NSPM-33) in January 2022, the agency would need additional time to coordinate these policies with OSTP and other agencies to ensure uniform requirements. The agency stated it is also awaiting forthcoming standard operating procedures, by which agencies can address possible noncompliance with disclosure requirements, from OSTP before finalizing its policies, so it can adopt and implement these standard templates. The agency stated that it anticipates issuing its policies by July 31st, 2022.
National Science Foundation The Director of the National Science Foundation should include a definition on non-financial conflicts in their agency policies, such as the one developed by OSTP, and address these conflicts, both foreign and domestic. (Recommendation 9)
Open
NSF neither agreed nor disagreed with our recommendation. NSF noted that while it did not concur with implementation of the term "non-financial conflicts of interest," it had taken actions to address the risks of foreign influence, including the creation of the first-in-government position of Chief of Research Security Strategy and Policy and clarifying language for disclosure requirements. NSF stated it also greatly increased its collaboration with the Office of Inspector General and Federal Bureau of Investigation to exchange information and take action to address offenses, where appropriate. In February 2022, NSF stated that the NSF Director and Chief of Research Security Strategy and Policy were committed to communicating the research security risks including concerns about malign foreign talent recruitment programs to the research community. As of February 2022, NSF has not taken any actions to address this recommendation. GAO will continue to monitor this issue.

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