The U.S. Congress appears poised to pass legislation making uniform what are now a hodgepodge of agency policies on when and how a scientist applying for a federal grant must disclose other sources of funding.
The provisions don’t mention China, but they are designed to counter its aggressive moves to obtain cutting-edge technologies by tapping into work funded by the U.S. government. Legislators from both parties have accused university officials of turning a blind eye to—or worse, being unwittingly complicit in—such attempts to steal government-funded discoveries by failing to keep tabs on the research activities of their faculty members.
The new rules are tucked into the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which sets spending and policy priorities for the Department of Defense. Unveiled yesterday as a compromise between earlier versions adopted by each house of Congress, the 4517-page bill enjoys bipartisan support and could be voted on next week, although President Donald Trump has threatened a veto because of other provisions.
The language on disclosure (section 223) applies to every major federal research agency. It requires that all key personnel on a grant application “disclose the amount, type, and source” of their current funding. It covers both domestic and foreign sources of support and any entity—a company, philanthropic organization, or governmental body—paying for the research.
“We don’t want to stifle research or discourage partnerships, but we want to know about them,” says an aide to the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, which drafted the language.
The extent of undisclosed foreign funding sources is not clear. In the past 2 years the U.S. government has accused several scientists of failing to reveal such sources, including in a high-profile case involving Harvard University chemistry professor Charles Lieber. Similarly, the National Institutes of Health has flagged 400 grantees that it believes have hidden outside sources of funding from their institutions. However, other federal agencies have reported few, if any, violations among grantees.
The new language is part of a burgeoning effort to make more transparent the various sources of funding for U.S. academic researchers. A White House interagency committee has been working since March 2019 on guidelines aimed at harmonizing agency practices, and this week the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened the first meeting of a congressionally mandated round table on science and national security as a forum for the U.S. research community.
The new provisions require universities and other recipients of federal funds to tell their scientists about the requirements for disclosure, and for faculty members to certify that they have complied with those terms. Researchers who fail to do so could forfeit their grant—and in extreme cases be prohibited from ever again receiving federal funding. Institutions that knowingly allow their researchers to hide sources of funding could likewise be permanently barred from the federal trough.
It’s extremely unlikely an agency would hand down such a draconian penalty, according to those who track the issue. But they say making it an option emphasizes the importance of full disclosure.
“This tells universities that this is the law and you have to follow it,” says one higher education lobbyist who asked to remain anonymous. “And it also provides clarity and consistency across the federal government.”
The provisions also allow agencies to post on a secure federal website any action they have taken against violators so that the information is available to officials across the government. The site is now used to list individuals or companies that have been barred from receiving federal funds. The NDAA language also explicitly allows agencies to refer cases of suspected nondisclosure to their in-house fiscal watchdog, the inspector general, and to federal law enforcement agencies. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has the job of making sure each agency’s policies conform to the new provisions.
Research advocates and congressional aides hope the NDAA language will not only codify practices at individual agencies, but also provide a bulwark against proposed legislation that would impose tighter restrictions. They include attempts to prohibit collaborations with some Chinese institutions, restrict the flow of scientists into the United States, or ban some international efforts involving research deemed essential to national security.
“Will it stop them? No,” one aide says. “But this should help.”
Source: Science Mag