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Research Security: Strengthening Interagency Collaboration Could Help Agencies Safeguard Federal Funding from Foreign Threats

GAO-24-106227 Published: Jan 11, 2024. Publicly Released: Jan 11, 2024.
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Fast Facts

Federal agencies can award funds to foreign organizations or individuals to encourage scientific advancements. But some applicants may try to exploit U.S.-funded research—including in ways that jeopardize U.S. national security.

While there are safeguards around these funds, not all agencies use the same tools to vet applicants. Also, agencies use available lists to determine which universities, companies, and other organizations are excluded from U.S. funding—but they said they could use more guidance on determining whether an organization is foreign-owned.

We recommended agencies better share information to help protect U.S. research funds.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

GAO found that determining whether federal research and development (R&D) funds were provided to a foreign entity of concern is challenging. Such entities include foreign terrorist organizations and specially designated nationals, among others. Awarding agencies are generally prohibited from doing business with foreign terrorist organizations and specially designated nationals.

GAO found that government-wide databases which report on some of these entities lack common identifying information such as a unique identifier or personally identifiable information. For example, a physical address, date of birth, or other identifying information for entities on the foreign terrorist organization list is often unavailable as entities often try to conceal their identity or location, according to the Treasury Department. When personally identifiable information such as date of birth is available, similar information is not available in the public federal funding data source, USAspending.gov. Specifically, although awarding agencies collect other identifying information, such as phone numbers of entities seeking an award, not all such information is reported in USAspending.gov. Together, these challenges limit the ability to match foreign entities on certain lists with those receiving government-wide funding.

Example of Gaps in Crossmatching Identifying Information for Restricted Foreign Entities With Federal Spending Data

Example of Gaps in Crossmatching Identifying Information for Restricted Foreign Entities With Federal Spending Data

GAO found that some requirements exist specific to R&D awards to foreign entities of concern. For example, agencies are generally required to vet potential awardees against the federal exclusions list, which includes foreign terrorist organizations and specially designated nationals. Agencies that GAO interviewed reported challenges in identifying foreign ownership, control, or influence. Officials from two agencies we reviewed said they use analytical tools and other available information to try to identify foreign ownership. Such efforts, however, are not shared across agencies. Recent guidance from the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)—the lead federal agency for interagency coordination on science and technology policies—does not address the issue of foreign ownership, control, or influence. OSTP officials told GAO that they handle this issue on a case-by-case basis and acknowledged the challenges that agencies face in addressing such risks. Information sharing on such complex matters would better position agencies to more fully safeguard R&D funds.

Why GAO Did This Study

According to the National Science Foundation, federal agencies obligated about $1.4 billion for R&D with foreign entities in fiscal year 2020 (the most recent data available). However, some foreign entities may try to exploit U.S. openness in sharing R&D for nefarious purposes.

The Research and Development, Competition, and Innovation Act includes a provision for GAO to review research funding provided to foreign entities of concern. The act's definition of such entities includes foreign terrorist organizations and foreign entities subject to the control, ownership, and jurisdiction of Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran.

This report examines challenges in identifying R&D funds awarded to foreign entities of concern and requirements for awarding and monitoring such funding.

GAO searched USAspending.gov and reviewed documents from federal funding and law enforcement agencies. GAO also interviewed federal agency officials, including those from the five agencies that obligated the most R&D funding in fiscal year 2020.

Recommendations

GAO is recommending that OSTP facilitate information sharing among agencies on identifying foreign ownership, control, or influence. OSTP concurred with this recommendation.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Office of Science and Technology Policy As part of OSTP's ongoing efforts to address research security risks, the Director of OSTP, in coordination with federal R&D awarding agencies, should facilitate the sharing of information on identifying foreign ownership, control, or influence. This could occur, for example, in conjunction with OSTP's existing efforts to support the national security strategy or its existing role to enhance the federal research agencies' awareness of research security risks and policies under NSPM-33. (Recommendation 1)
Open
We will update the status of this recommendation as we obtain additional information on its implementation.

Full Report

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Topics

Environmental monitoringFederal acquisition regulationsFederal agenciesFederal fundsFederal spending transparencyForeign policyLaws and regulationsNational securityResearch and developmentScience and technologySecurity risksTerrorists