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Organized intellectual espionage is a concept that may not seem relevant to most American scientists because such instances are extremely rare, like most cases of scientific misconduct. But this type of theft from research institutions in the United States, although infrequent and isolated, is very real and very serious. It compromises the scientific values that uphold the openness of academic institutions in the United States as well as the nation’s security. Over the past decade, U.S. academic, security, and intelligence communities have identified an increasing number of instances of such misconduct by foreign nations, primarily China but also Russia and Iran. As policies to aggressively deter these occurrences are under vigorous discussion, the scientific community needs to step up and participate in designing the legal path forward, no matter how unpalatable that might seem. Otherwise, scientists will simply be left accepting the cards dealt to them regarding openness and collaboration, which could be even more distasteful.
Currently, U.S. science funding and security agencies report that just under 200 cases of intellectual espionage are under investigation. Violations include the failure to disclose foreign financial support that is contingent on sharing scientific “secrets” and maintaining “shadow” or duplicate laboratories in two different countries but both working on the same problems and with duplicate support. In addition, granting agencies and scientific journals have been reporting increased violations of peer review confidentiality, in which research proposals or manuscripts under consideration for publication are inappropriately shared with colleagues or students, who then relay the ideas and other information to colleagues elsewhere. If this kind of strategic misconduct goes unchecked, essential scientific values will be undermined: openness and transparency, integrity and trust, fairness and an equal playing field for all, the confidentiality of peer review, and a welcoming environment for students and colleagues no matter their origins and ethnicities. As a result, the climate for science and scientific collaborations could become much more restrictive, and foreign scientists would be at risk of becoming victims of racial and ethnic profiling.
In October, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)—in partnership with the American Council on Education, the Association of American Universities, and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities—convened a summit to discuss the balance between effective strategies to mitigate espionage risks and maintaining the country’s openness to foreign students and scientists. The director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Kelvin Droegemeier, has held multisector discussions this year to explore potential solutions. And the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine has been conducting similar roundtables to discuss the nature of the problems and potential strategies for mitigating the risks in ways that will protect scientific values as well as intellectual property. A proposal is pending in the U.S. Congress to support a standing roundtable on these issues at the National Academies. At the FBI summit, director Christopher Wray called for a partnership that is not just about policing intellectual property theft but also better protecting the enterprise from unfair competition and other violations of scientific norms and values. He urged, for example, that all international scientific agreements include requirements for full transparency and reciprocity from all partners, and that there be consequences when those conditions are violated.
Engaging with security agencies is an uneasy concept for many American scientists. They fear excessive incursion into academic life. But it will be necessary to work with them to ensure that the core values of science, particularly open global collaboration, are not compromised by any proposed policies, regulations, or procedures.
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