MITRE: Risk Approach May Thwart Foreign Threats, Better Federal Info, Support Essential

Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA)
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Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA)

Report on Research Compliance 18, no. 2 (February 2021)

“I don’t want to be on the front page of the paper with my best researcher being dragged off in handcuffs. It doesn’t look good for our university,” a senior university administrator said. “Funding has gotten harder to get in the U.S. and it became easier to get from foreign sources in some cases,” said a principal investigator (PI). “So what’s driving this is the challenges in the U.S. research environment.”

These two comments are tucked inside a new study by The MITRE Corporation, Improper Influence in Federally Funded Fundamental Research,[1] which captures the fears, challenges and possible solutions related to ensuring that collaborations with non-United States investigators and institutions are legal and proper. The administrator and PIs were among the 160 researchers as well as representatives of 19 universities and eight U.S. agencies whom MITRE officials interviewed last summer for the report.

In recent years, institutions have grappled with thwarting possible foreign alliances PIs may have that pose threats to intellectual property and other fruits of research. But their efforts, they say, have been hampered by a lack of useable information from agencies and other government sources—circumstances borne out in the MITRE study. Furthermore, they have struggled to take thoughtful actions that don’t inappropriately target acceptable—and hard won—arrangements.

In June, Michael Lauer, NIH deputy director for extramural research, reported that the agency was investigating nearly 400 researchers over possible inappropriate or undeclared foreign support.[2]

At the same time, there have been a number of high-profile cases of criminal charges against investigators,[3] and institutions have also paid a price. In December 2019, Van Andel Research Institute paid $5.5 million to settle False Claims Act allegations related to two former researchers’ undisclosed support from China; half was restitution, and the balance was penalties.[4]

MITRE’s study addresses these issues within the context of the federally funded fundamental research enterprise, what MITRE calls F3RE. It also refers to efforts that can be made as causes of action (COAs).

The study highlighted “areas of consensus among stakeholders about the nature and potential negative impacts of improper foreign government influence activities identified to-date,” but also documented “different perspectives about the effectiveness of existing and planned efforts to mitigate risks.”

MITRE “identified several gaps and challenges in current mitigation approaches including lack of a risk-based perspective when evaluating international collaboration opportunities, a lack of data sufficient to evaluate risk, and the existence of a gray area of understanding among grant recipients about improper foreign influence activities, individual risk, and impacts to national security.”

Further, and “most importantly,” it said there was a “lack of an effective, systemic approach to identify, counter and deter improper foreign influence on the F3RE.”

While “egregious cases” are easy to understand, individual PIs “continue to perceive a large gray area when presented with a specific international collaboration opportunity,” it said.

“Defensiveness based on university culture” is among the barriers MITRE listed to successfully managing foreign influences. “Research at universities is governed by the idea of academic freedom and international collaborations are critical for the success of universities and faculty. There is resistance to the idea that faculty collaborations and behaviors will be scrutinized more than they already are,” the report said.

Additionally, PIs have trouble “distinguishing proper vs. improper collaborations. Some faculty are unable to make informed decisions on whether to enter into an international collaboration because they perceive the line delineating proper and improper collaboration is unclear and changing (gray area).”

And they’re getting mixed messages. “Some PIs reported being encouraged by grantmakers or universities to collaborate with entities and individuals that are later found to be engaged in improper foreign government influence activities. Grantmaking agencies and universities have also been hesitant to ban participation in foreign talent programs. PIs felt both of these add to the confusion about how to tell if a collaboration is proper or improper,” according to the report.

But this isn’t a problem for just PIs. “Stakeholders also described an inability to distinguish between improper collaboration and improper influence,” the study said. “Some stakeholders questioned the criteria being used to determine whether an aspect of collaboration constitutes an opportunity for influence. For example, if a PI receives a $200 honorarium from a foreign entity, is that a large enough amount to require disclosure and raise a red flag for either improper collaboration or improper influence?”

MITRE also described “foundational” COAs that would be implemented by federal agencies as well as institutions, including:

  • “Extend the existing federal grants risk management framework to account for managing improper foreign government influence threats throughout the grants life cycle.” This would also include leveraging “appropriate public and private data sources and tools that can contribute to the development of the framework and support implementation.”

  • “Implement a risk-based approach to assessing foreign collaborations and their potential impact on national security.” To support implementation, MITRE recommends enabling and executing an education campaign on the scope of modern national security, which includes commonly-recognized physical and cyber security interests, in addition to political, food, economic, and health security.

    Related activities include implementing an “education campaign” focused “on the difference between traditional understanding of threats to research security and integrity and threats from a foreign government actor,” as well as explain “how threats from improper foreign government influence manifest differently than traditional threats to research integrity and security.” Additionally, the risk management framework would be implemented across all stakeholders, including federal agencies and different units within a university, which MITRE said would keep down costs.

  • “Explore opportunities to identify areas of fundamental research as emerging and high risk and integrate into the risk framework.”

  • “Increase the ability of F3RE stakeholders to share information by operationalizing an information sharing and analysis center (ISAC) model.” MITRE provided no details about this COA except to reference the “existing Research Education Network ISAC (REN-ISAC) for prospective elements and functions that could be applicable to strengthen the resilience of the F3RE.” According to its website, the REN-ISAC “serves over 650 member institutions within the higher education and research community by promoting cybersecurity operational protections and response.”[5]

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