Research security and transparency are not mutually exclusive

Below is a  post co-authored by Chancellor Rebecca Blank and Steve Ackerman, Interim Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education.

As I’ve shared in other recent posts, UW–Madison values international research collaborations and is committed to international faculty and student exchanges. We strive to provide a welcoming environment to foreign students and scholars and to uphold academic freedom. We believe in the open dissemination of research and encourage our faculty and staff to collaborate with others to advance knowledge.

All of these perspectives help UW–Madison maintain its excellence in cutting-edge research.

That said, there are threats to research security and intellectual property and the university takes these threats seriously.  Our federal agency partners have been paying careful attention to issues of foreign influence and research security. There has been an increasing focus on these topics, both from the government and in the news media.

Last year, NIH Director Francis Collins issued a “Foreign Influence Letter to Grantees.” Dr. Collins also testified in front of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee outlining concerns about foreign influence in U.S. research. This summer, National Science Foundation Director France Córdova issued a Dear Colleague Letter on research protection, outlining initiatives and policies to help mitigate risks due to foreign influence. The Department of Energy and Department of Defense also have issued memos describing planned methods to protect national security.

These are important issues, but our response to them has to be measured. In some cases, it appears that Chinese and Chinese American scientists have resigned from research institutions under pressure that did not seem well-grounded in facts. But we do have to recognize that there are bad actors out there and that there is sometimes pressure for researchers with foreign affiliations to report back in inappropriate ways.

We know that stronger security measures may protect intellectual property. We also know that overly-aggressive actions could discourage top talent — students, faculty and staff — from coming to the United States. In some cases, racial profiling is a very real concern.

China may be the most noteworthy threat, but federal officials are also concerned about countries such as Russia, North Korea, and Iran.

To bolster our security without sacrificing the continuing free flow of ideas at UW–Madison, we have met with federal intelligence representatives, listened to their concerns and consulted with them on how we address and prevent security threats on campus.

We have convened a working group to assess policies, procedures, and activities that involve foreign entities and to develop strategies for the future. In part, we need to remind faculty of federal and university disclosure and export controls compliance requirements, and make sure they understand and follow them. Funded and non-funded agreements that support sponsored research at UW−Madison are already reviewed internally by Research and Sponsored Programs. But faculty are also now required to report connections with foreign Institutions and to report on research funding which does not flow through UW-Madison.

Disclosure of potential conflicts of interest and protection of confidential grant-related information is essential and that’s why we are taking a more comprehensive note of employee travel and affiliations and ramping up data security.

One tool to help you share information is the annual Outside Activities Reporting form. Changes to the form include a new set of questions and a foreign entity option for reporting new activities and enhancing our research integrity rules already in place.

If you are contacted by federal authorities or if you have concerns about any research security issue, please contact our Office of Legal Affairs for assistance. There is a system in place for the FBI to contact senior officials at UW-Madison if they intend to talk with anyone on campus. A contact by a federal official, however, does not mean you are being investigated. Often university researchers are contacted by federal authorities because they are experts in a field and able to offer a deeper understanding of a topic.

Campus also has several resources for faculty and staff who are traveling to other countries. The International Division’s unit of International Safety and Security is available to help you prepare for international travel on issues such as insurance and UW’s international travel policy. DoIT provides guidance and resources for protecting your data and devices when traveling.

Our Office of Cybersecurity supports the campus by leading and managing campus efforts to reduce risk. A recent UW System initiative includes a plan to bring all campuses in alignment around cybersecurity. UW­–Madison is an enthusiastic partner in this initiative, as it includes some measures we already have in place or have planned.

Today’s scientific challenges are complex and to meet these challenges, we have to reach across borders in areas such as global health, agriculture, language, political studies, climate, and much more. International collaboration is found in all divisions on campus. Its importance is echoed in an epiphany that many of our study abroad students and Peace Corps volunteers experience early on in their travels — when you interact with people from diverse backgrounds, you often come to think about things in a different way and see connections you never thought of before.

We can strengthen research security while also preserving our commitment to scientific collaboration and openness. We encourage international collaborations, but it is important for us to be transparent about our foreign relationships and activities.