Q&A with Vice Provost and Dean of Research Kathryn Moler on undue foreign interference in academic research

Vice Provost and Dean of Research Kathryn Ann Moler discusses recommendations fo

Vice Provost and Dean of Research Kathryn Ann Moler discusses recommendations for how Stanford should address federal concerns about undue foreign interference in research. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Two faculty committees recently provided recommendations for how Stanford should address federal concerns about undue foreign interference in research. Moler discusses those recommendations, their impacts on faculty and the value of open research.

Two faculty committees tasked with reviewing issues related to undue foreign interference in research at Stanford have provided a set of recommendations that seek to uphold the university’s long-held commitment to openness in academic research and international collaboration while protecting against undue foreign interference.

These committees arose out of concerns from federal agencies, including the Department of Energy and National Institutes of Health, along with intelligence agencies and Congress about the possibility of undue foreign interference at U.S. research universities. Both the NIH and DOE have taken steps to limit undue foreign interference in research they fund, and the Association of American Universities has similarly urged research universities to review their policies.

With those concerns in mind, two faculty committees began meeting last spring to consider these issues. One, the Foreign Influence Policies and Practices Advisory Committee, was convened by Vice Provost and Dean of Research Kathryn Moler and tasked with reviewing policies and procedures related to international agreements and funding, researcher disclosures, training and awareness regarding regulations, and other issues. Meanwhile, a subcommittee of the Faculty Senate’s Committee on Research was convened to consider the interaction between these issues and Stanford policies on academic freedom, openness in research and nondiscrimination in research agreements.

The committees were co-chaired by Michael Dunne , professor of photon science and associate laboratory director of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, and Kenneth Scheve , professor of political science and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

The resulting recommendations are summarized  in a memo on the Dean of Research website, and include a range of activities to support and extend existing policies and procedures. Moler answered questions from Stanford Report about the work of the committees and what the recommendations mean for Stanford faculty.

What are the origins of this issue?

At Stanford, our faculty have long made it clear that academic freedom, openness in research and nondiscrimination in research agreements are foundational to how we perform research. These have been incorporated into the Research Policy Handbook with approval from the Senate of the Academic Council for decades. When you read the Research Policy Handbook in detail, you can see that our predecessors were deeply committed to these values and also very thoughtful about how to balance these values with concerns like protecting private information and managing intellectual property appropriately.

In recent years, the federal government has had increased concerns about the threat of intellectual property thefts by foreign entities, and has worried about the implications of those threats for U.S. national and economic security. Agencies like the Department of Energy and National Institutes of Health have begun implementing guidance and have increased scrutiny and enforcement of existing rules. Lack of compliance and attention may put the university and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at risk of losing federal funding for research, which last year surpassed $810 million for Stanford and SLAC, or over 60 percent of research funding. In light of these concerns we felt it was time to step back and take a look at how current issues around foreign interference relate to these guiding principles, and do so with robust faculty involvement.

It might be tempting to attribute these concerns over foreign involvement to the current political climate, but this issue has been building momentum for several years and has bipartisan support in Congress. Universities across the country are grappling with how to balance openness to foreign collaborators with appropriately protecting intellectual property and ensuring compliance with rapidly changing federal regulations.

How did Stanford respond?

We created two committees consisting of faculty representatives and a student as well as staff subject matter experts across the institution who met throughout the spring and summer. We also worked with the Stanford Law School Policy Lab to review influences on research in general, and current practices at Stanford.

I’m incredibly grateful to all three of these groups - and particularly to Mike and Ken - who did a simply outstanding job on a challenging topic and timeline.

Meanwhile, we have been working with agencies and individuals within the federal government as well as our peer institutions to understand what others are doing and present a coordinated approach from academia.

What are the key outcomes from the committees’ review?

At a general level, they reaffirmed our principles and the balance between them - we must have openness, academic freedom, nondiscrimination and international exchange. We also must be responsible stewards of government research funding and ensure that we are taking the necessary steps to comply with federal and university policies and be attentive to federal concerns about the challenges posed by foreign influence in academic research.

To do that, the committees proposed six specific steps, many of which are improvements to practices and policies already in place. These are:

  • Publicly reaffirm our values so the Stanford community is aware that we remain absolutely committed to the openness of research. Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne is fully on board with this and has written a Notes from the Quad post on the topic, as well as speaking in public settings such as a recent Faculty Senate meeting and to the Board of Trustees reaffirming his support. We will continue to reaffirm that commitment, which is central to Stanford’s research success.
  • Establish a Foreign Engagement Review Program (FERP) to review and approve foreign collaborations and ensure all Stanford research is in compliance with federal requirements and Stanford’s values and policies.
  • Enhance visitor onboarding so all visiting scholars to Stanford understand our values and commitment to openness of research.
  • Update our processes for how we comply with laws that govern the export of Stanford technologies and intellectual properties to foreign countries.
  • Improve communication and education throughout Stanford research communities so that all members understand how to comply with federal requirements and don’t unknowingly put themselves or the institution at risk. To this end, I will be holding information sessions with faculty in the coming months, and we will update our trainings for principal investigators.
  • Ensure that all industry affiliates programs are in alignment with current policies , especially given that many have foreign members as affiliates.

We will continue to monitor this evolving field and update our processes and policies accordingly.

How will the Foreign Engagement Review Program work?

We are still working through the details, but basically we will coordinate our efforts to review significant engagements - including large gifts, research agreements and partnerships - with foreign entities, and identify potential risks involved in those collaborations.

First, a FERP coordinator will review the proposed engagement and quickly identify whether anything needs further review. I expect that for most of these engagements the FERP coordinator will quickly be able to say that there is nothing that needs further review. This single point of contact will be really helpful for faculty who want to move their agreements forward quickly.

For cases where the FERP coordinator believes that an issue is raised, the coordinator will bring in relevant subject matter experts to help with the review and determine whether any additional actions are needed before the research can proceed.

If there appear to be any major risks associated with the research collaboration, the full committee, including faculty, will review the proposed engagement, consult with affected faculty and then advise the researchers proposing the engagement, as well as university leadership, on the benefits and risks of the proposed engagement.

We already carry out this process in an ad hoc way, but this more formal process will help provide more consistent, timely and informed decisions. We will have more about that program on the DoResearch website in the coming weeks.

How will these recommendations affect visiting researchers at Stanford?

The committees recommended that all researchers visiting Stanford should receive a consistent onboarding process to ensure that they understand the regulations surrounding the free exchange of ideas within an academic setting. This includes consistent education about federal, state and university guidelines that we expect visitors to follow.

Some of this onboarding is done on a one-by-one basis by faculty hosts, but the recommendations include a formal process to ensure visitors receive consistent information. We will be rolling out these programs over the upcoming year, and will provide information to faculty on the DoResearch website.

Nationally there have been many questions about specific research engagements with foreign entities. Huawei and Saudi Arabia are examples. How does the review work done by the committees affect those issues?

Going forward, when the FERP process is implemented, we will explicitly charge it to review specific engagements. The risks of foreign engagement need to be weighed against the general presumption that the exchange of people and ideas is critical to Stanford’s mission and central to our values, as articulated in our policies on academic freedom, openness in research and nondiscrimination in research agreements. For that reason, in most cases, the program will advise on what needs to be done to ensure adherence to Stanford and government policies on matters such as conflict of interest, conflict of commitment, data management, export compliance, disclosure and appropriate protection of intellectual property, rather than advise against the engagement.

What is most important for faculty to know about this?

We are working to make the process as efficient as possible for faculty. To that end, we have developed web resources to help faculty and will continue to implement tools to ensure all Stanford faculty can freely engage with collaborators. The single most important thing individual faculty members can do right now is to ensure they are disclosing their activities internally and with their funders regarding possible conflicts of interest and conflicts of commitment or if there are significant components of the work that may be performed outside the U.S.

Above all, I want faculty to know that the university unequivocally recognizes the value of international engagements, the foreign nationals and the rich diversity of all those who are part of our research community, and our guiding principles of academic freedom, openness in research and nondiscrimination in research agreements. We are here to support our entire research community and are hopeful that by providing clear policies and an efficient review process, we can protect researchers from possible risks while supporting their research efforts.

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