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Shining a Light on Foreign Influence

NC State employees who file conflict of interest forms are asked to report professional activities involving foreign entities. The new scrutiny comes in response to growing concern about undue foreign influence in federally funded research.

Squares and arrows drawn in red marker on a piece of backlit glass.

NC State is updating the forms employees use to report conflicts of interest and outside employment in response to increased government scrutiny of undue foreign influence in research.

This year’s conflict of interest form, known by the shorthand COI, asks employees if they are participating in any foreign activities, such as those related to a foreign talent recruitment program. If they answer yes, then they must provide additional information, including the name of the program, the country involved and the amount of compensation they received.

EHRA employees, including faculty members, are required to submit a COI form to the university each year.

“I don’t anticipate this will put a significant burden on employees,” says Richard Best, director of compliance in Sponsored Programs and Regulatory Compliance. “About 85 to 90% of university employees do not have conflicts.”

The issue did impact the university’s new Research Enterprise Data system. A new cloud-based module for creating and submitting the COI form has been delayed until next year. Employees will use the existing system to submit their forms this year.

Best’s department set up a website on its intranet (Unity ID required) to provide more information on the changes. The provost and the head of research distributed a memo to university managers in August alerting them to the issue.

Federal officials have expressed growing concern about the efforts of foreign governments to unduly influence U.S. research projects — or even steal research data and intellectual property. In the past year, directors of major federal research agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, have warned that some foreign entities are attempting to exploit the open nature of university laboratories and research centers in the U.S. The director of the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy recently issued a letter on new initiatives to address these concerns.

First Contact Is Subtle

Best says foreign recruitment efforts may begin with a simple email to a researcher.

“It starts very informally. They may say that they just read your research paper and they would like to meet with you and visit your lab. Or they invite you to come overseas and offer to put you up in a nice hotel,” Best says. “They’ll show you great hospitality, take you out to dinner. Then they’ll begin asking you questions about your research. What are you working on now? What grants do you currently have? And it builds from there.”

The Department of Energy is so concerned about these activities, it issued a directive in June that prohibits anyone working under a DOE contract from participating in a foreign talent recruitment program.

Best says NC State is reviewing a set of best practices developed by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities to better respond to the risk of undue foreign influence. And he says the university is closely monitoring communications from federal agencies to understand and comply with their quickly evolving directives. He is particularly concerned that the federal government does not yet have a concise definition of a foreign talent recruitment program. He plans to attend meetings in Washington at which these questions will be raised with government officials in the coming months.

Employees concerned about the issue of foreign influence can get more information and regular updates on the SPARCS website. But the most important thing they can do, Best says, is to be completely transparent and to report all conflicts and potential conflicts.

“Sunshine is always the best disinfectant,” he says.

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