Tuesday, 23 May 2023

U.S. Government Accountability Office Report on Unwanted University Tech Transfer Risk

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has released a report titled, “CHINA Efforts Underway to Address Technology Transfer Risk at U.S. Universities, but ICE Could Improve Related Data,” concerning recommendations to better track visiting scholars, students and researchers from outside the United States.  The published report is incomplete because some of it has been deemed too sensitive to disclose.  Notably, the published report points to a failure of law enforcement agencies, including Immigration, Customs and Enforcement (ICE), to track certain relevant data concerning the risk that unlawful technology transfer may occur involving federally funded university research.  The report is available, here, and states, in part:

According to federal internal control standards, management should use quality information that is, among other things, complete and accurate to achieve the entity’s objectives, and process relevant data into quality information within the entity’s information system. The U.S. government has identified research in sensitive fields, facilities and locations of expected work, and employment and employment history as potential risk factors for the transfer of technology. Improving the completeness of employer information in SEVIS could enhance ICE’s management of the OPT program and provide the U.S. government with more information on who is employing foreign students and, therefore, whether certain individuals may have access to technology.

Since 2016, oversight bodies at the five U.S. grant-making agencies in our review—NIH, NSF, NASA, DOD, and DOE—have investigated an increased number of researchers for potential violations related to the security of federally funded research at U.S. universities, according to agency data. These include grant fraud and compliance violations related to failures to disclose potential sources of foreign influence on researchers, such as other support for individual research endeavors, significant financial interests, or other conflicts of interest. These investigations have often involved undisclosed affiliations with the PRC, such as receiving PRC research funding. However, agency officials emphasized that decisions made to initiate an investigation or during the course of an investigation are not based on individual characteristics such as nationality or visa status, which is information that none of the five agencies in our review consistently collect. Agency data indicate that investigations have resulted in agency and university actions to address research security risks related to foreign influence. However, little information is available about civil and criminal cases related to potential transfer of university research because DOJ does not systematically track all cases specific to U.S. universities or federal grant funding. Further, officials from grant-making and law enforcement agencies we spoke with noted that it is challenging to assess the more general extent and negative impact of technology transfers to foreign countries. Amid agency efforts to address this type of national security threat, university faculty, officials from university and Asian and Asian-American associations, and others have highlighted the importance of balancing protection of federally funded research against potential adverse effects of these efforts. . . .

As a result of investigations initiated from 2016 through 2021, grantmaking agencies—particularly NIH, which accounted for about 73 percent of the individuals under investigation in our review—addressed a number of violations that could threaten the integrity of university research. As of October 2021, 94 percent of NIH investigations into researchers of concern had uncovered at least one compliance violation that NIH deemed serious, such as a failure to disclose foreign conflicts of interest (e.g., foreign affiliations, grant funding, or talent recruitment program participation), according to NIH data. As a result, NIH reported that at least 76 percent of individuals under investigation were no longer associated with grant-funded research or other grant-related responsibilities, primarily through resignation or actions taken by grant recipient institutions, including termination or exclusion from grant-funded research. In addition, NIH officials noted that because many of their investigations remained ongoing, they expected the number of actions taken in response to violations to rise. . . .

In this context, U.S. agencies and others have identified factors that indicate the types of foreign students or scholars who may pose a greater risk of transferring technology from U.S. universities. ICE already maintains information in its SEVIS database related to several of these factors, including country of citizenship and level of education. However, ICE has not completed a required assessment to understand whether it needs to update SEVIS to better capture information related to students and scholars who may pose a greater risk for technology transfer. Furthermore, data related to other risk factors already required in SEVIS, such as employer information, are incomplete. More complete data, and a better understanding of the information needed to identify students who present the highest risk for the potential transfer of university research, could strengthen U.S. government efforts to identify and assess risks to U.S. research and development.

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