Dear [institutional leader(s)]:
In recent years, the U.S. government has undertaken a series of actions in response to increasing national and economic security concerns, especially regarding the Chinese government. This includes the U.S. Department of Justice’s China Initiative, tightened regulations of federal funding agencies regarding disclosure and international collaboration, visa restrictions for certain international students and scholars, etc. We fully recognize the legitimate interests of the U.S. government in protecting classified research and ensuring national and economic security. Unfortunately, these policies have often been implemented in a way that harms open scientific research. For example, the prosecution of Temple University’s Professor Xiaoxing Xi was based on a shocking lack of understanding of the underlying science, with the result that all charges against Professor Xi were eventually dropped. Most China Initiative cases involving academics have not involved espionage but rather have alleged failure to fulfill disclosure requirements. Although any infractions or misconduct should be addressed appropriately, they should not be confused with scientific espionage or intellectual property theft, and should not be addressed in ways that imperil the careers and livelihoods of students and scholars. In some cases, actions against individual scholars apparently have proceeded based on unreliable evidence (as has been reported in the case against Feng (Franklin) Tao of the University of Kansas), or on false information provided by the federal agent to their research institution (as has been reported in the case against Anming Hu, formerly on the faculty of the University of Tennessee (UT), Knoxville). Finally, it must be noted that the China Initiative has disproportionally targeted researchers of Chinese origin, raising concerns about racial profiling.
Research security investigations by federal law enforcement and funding agencies do not only affect accused researchers, with consequences ranging from irritating waste of time to career-threatening prosecution. They are exacting a significant cost on universities and research institutions – and indeed on our national STEM efforts – by placing a palpable chill on international scientific collaborations, which for decades have been of the utmost importance and consequence. Without an open and inclusive environment that attracts the most talented researchers from across the globe, the viability of institutional excellence in STEM is severely compromised.
Research institutions play an essential role in protecting legitimate open science and their researchers. For example, when MIT professor Gang Chen was prosecuted, MIT President Rafael Reif issued timely public statements to correct inaccurate and misleading information in the charging document, and to express concerns about the government’s action. MIT has also provided legal support to Professor Chen. In contrast, in the case of Anming Hu, public information shows that UT did not request a warrant before turning over documents from Hu’s university files to the federal investigators, had concealed the investigation from him, and had cooperated with the investigation by misleading NASA. Hu was suspended from the university two days after his arrest and later fired. Regardless of the outcome of this ongoing legal case, there are legitimate concerns whether due process was respected by UT in this case.
The response of the institution makes an enormous difference not only to researchers under investigation, but also to other members of that institution. A research institution can only flourish scientifically if its employees are confident that they are trusted and supported by their leadership. While each individual case may be different, we strongly feel it is timely to begin a dialog on this issue, with the goal that any future such cases are handled justly. Institutions should defend their researchers when the allegations against them are weak or uncertain. Process infractions, such as failure to appropriately complete a form, should be addressed appropriately at an institutional level or by funding agencies, but attempts by investigators to leverage these into threats of legal prosecution must be opposed. In the current climate, accusations are often not well-founded, and it is critical for [the institution]’s response to be based on a respect for the rights of accused faculty and the recognition that when honest mistakes or scientific misconduct have been committed, the punishment should be proportionate. It is also essential for [the institution] to provide support and guidance to researchers in handling the complex and changing rules of funding agencies. More specifically, below we list some questions and requests to the administration.
- We urge [the institution] to make a public statement that recognizes the concerns caused by the federal government’s actions, condemns racial profiling, condemns criminal prosecution of scientific misconduct such as failure to disclose conflicts of commitment, and supports the affected research community, especially Chinese/Chinese American scholars and others with international connections.
- We urge [the institution] to guarantee that its own policies do not single out researchers based on race or ethnic/national origin, raising racial profiling concerns.
- We urge [the institution] to advocate vigorously for openness of fundamental research, especially in its interactions with federal funding agencies and other government agencies. In particular, we request [the institution] to advocate for the U.S. government to continue to follow Presidential Directive NSDD-189, which states that national security concerns should be addressed by the mechanism of classification, and unclassified fundamental research should remain unrestricted “to the maximum extent possible.”1Currently, vague terms such as “controlled unclassified research” are being used by the federal government and have caused significant confusion and concern in researchers.
- We urge [the institution] to follow due process in its response to demands of federal investigators. In cases based on failure to disclose conflicts of commitment, we ask [the institution] to clarify to federal investigators the difference between ordinary scientific misconduct and research espionage. We also ask [the institution] to clarify to its researchers (1) under which circumstances and following what procedures will it share work emails and other internal documents of an employee with federal investigators; (2) under which circumstances will [the institution] inform a researcher about an ongoing federal investigation against them involving research security or scientific misconduct.
- We urge [the institution] to guarantee fair treatment of any employee under federal investigation over foreign ties. [The institution] should treat an investigated employee as innocent until proved otherwise. [The institution] should make sure an investigated employee is informed about their rights in an investigation. Rigorous due process should be followed in any administrative actions involving the employee. The institution should not suspend an employee without pay before the final verdict or plea, particularly if this places the employee in jeopardy of losing their work authorization.
- We urge [the institution] to provide appropriate legal and/or financial support if an employee faces a lawsuit related to research security concerns due to their work for [the institution]. We understand that each case is different, but [the institution] should have a transparent and rigorous process to evaluate each case and provide appropriate support.
- We urge [the institution] to provide adequate guidance and administrative support to researchers, especially principal investigators of federal grants, to ensure compliance with disclosure requirements and other regulations without imposing an undue burden on researchers. Because the institution and the PI are co-recipients of federal grants, both parties should bear responsibility for complying with regulations.
We very much appreciate your attention in this important matter, and we look forward to your response and to actions which will protect the exciting and vibrant research environment at [this institution].