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Grassley Expands Government Grant Integrity Probe to National Science Foundation

February 26,2020

WASHINGTON
– U.S. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa sent a letter
to National Science Foundation (NSF) Director France A. Córdova seeking
information regarding the processes in place at NSF to detect and deter threats
to NSF-supported research.

“The
threats to our academic and research institutions from foreign governments are well
known and extend to medical research, technological advancements, defense, and
energy research. Our government must take all reasonable and necessary steps to
protect the integrity of taxpayer-funded research and ensure that intellectual
property created here is not stolen by agents of foreign governments. To that
end, I have written to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the
Department of Defense (DOD) regarding threats to taxpayer-funded research in an
effort to better understand the steps they have taken to combat the threat and
ensure the integrity of the research,” Grassley wrote.

“However,
NIH and DOD are not the only agencies charged with dispensing academic research
and development grants—among others, the National Science Foundation (NSF) also
plays a significant role… NSF has provided extensive support for U.S.
university research. It is also responsible for significant shares of the
federal science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education
program portfolio and federal STEM student aid and support.” 

Congress
appropriates more than $8.1 billion to NSF through the Consolidated
Appropriations Act of 2018 for continued support of its research and
educational goals. Due to its significant contributions to American research and
the large investment of taxpayer dollars, Grassley is specifically asking NSF
for more information regarding:

·       The background
check process NSF and recipients of NSF funds use to vet grant recipients;

·       Current rules and
procedures that are in place to prevent potential theft of research data and
findings;

·       The amount of
staff and taxpayer dollars used to identify and investigate potential
violations;

·      
How many reviews
or audits have been conducted of researchers and institutions to identify potential violations
concerning foreign affiliations and financial contributions  in the past five years;

·       What enforcement mechanisms
are available to protect intellectual property created by taxpayer-funded
research and hold accountable those who steal or attempt to steal it, and;

·       If NSF works with
other government agencies, such as the State Department, Justice Department, or
intelligence community to track, analyze and assess potential threats to intellectual
property created by taxpayer-funded research.

Full
text is available here
and below.
NSF
OIG’s response can be found HERENSF’s
response can be found HERE

The Honorable
France A. Córdova, PhD.

Director

National Science
Foundation

2415 Eisenhower
Avenue,

Alexandria, VA
22314

Dear Director
Córdova:

On December 12,
2018, while Chair of the Judiciary Committee, I held a hearing on China’s
threats to U.S. national security. In that hearing, Department of Justice (DOJ)
and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) officials made clear that the threat
to our research from foreign governments is known and ongoing. For example, the
DOJ witness, Mr. John Demers, stated, “we need to adapt our enforcement
strategy to reach non-traditional collectors, including researchers in labs,
universities, and the defense industrial base, some of whom may have
undisclosed ties to Chinese institutions and conflicted loyalties.” The FBI
witness, Mr. Bill Priestap, stated that China’s talent recruitment programs are
effectively “brain gain programs” that “encourage theft of intellectual
property from U.S. institutions.” Prior to that hearing, in February 2018, FBI
Director Wray testified before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence
about worldwide threats. Director Wray testified, in part, that the Chinese are
“exploiting” and “taking advantage” of our academic institutions.

The threats to our
academic and research institutions from foreign governments are well known and
extend to medical research, technological advancements, defense, and energy
research. Our government must take all reasonable and necessary steps to
protect the integrity of taxpayer-funded research and ensure that intellectual
property created here is not stolen by agents of foreign governments. To that
end, I have written to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the
Department of Defense (DOD) regarding threats to taxpayer-funded research in an
effort to better understand the steps they have taken to combat the threat and
ensure the integrity of the research. However, NIH and DOD are not the only
agencies charged with dispensing academic research and development grants—among
others, the National Science Foundation (NSF) also plays a significant role.

Congress
established the NSF through the National Science Foundation Act of 1950 to “promote
the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and
welfare; to secure the national defense; and for other purposes.” In
furtherance of this purpose, NSF has provided extensive support for U.S.
university research. It is also responsible for significant shares of the
federal science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education
program portfolio and federal STEM student aid and support. Congress continued its
funding of NSF through the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018, where it
appropriated more than $8.1 billion for continued support of its research and
education goals pertaining to non-medical sciences and engineering.

According to news
reports, NSF has reached out to national security experts to learn more about
how foreign entities may influence taxpayer-funded research. Reports also
revealed last year that NSF required its rotators to be U.S. citizens or those
seeking citizenship. These are positive initial steps toward protecting the
integrity of taxpayer-funded research. However, more must be done. Accordingly,
to better understand NSF’s current process for protecting taxpayer-funded
research from foreign threats and to assess any forthcoming changes made by NSF
in this area, please provide answers to the following no later than April 29,
2019:

1.    
Please
describe in detail the process by which NSF, and recipients of NSF funds for
research purposes, conduct background checks of researchers and institutions
prior to awarding grants.  

2.    
What
rules, procedures, or regulations currently exist to prevent potential foreign
actors from acquiring, altering, or duplicating taxpayer-funded research data
and findings?

3.    
How
many staff and how much taxpayer money per year is budgeted to ensure
compliance with and to identify and investigate potential violations of rules,
procedures, and regulations concerning the foreign affiliations of researchers
and financial contributions to them? 
Please provide a copy of the budget and all other supporting
documentation for the past five years.

4.    
With
respect to the recipients of NSF funds for research purposes, how many
systematic reviews, or audits, have been performed of those entities in the
past five years for the purpose of identifying potential violations concerning
foreign affiliations and financial contributions?  Please list each entity and the results of
the review.

5.    
What
enforcement mechanisms are available to NSF to protect intellectual property
created by and resulting from taxpayer-funded research and to hold accountable
foreign agents and institutions for violating NSF policies and rules?  Does NSF require additional statutory
authorities to effectively punish and deter wrongdoers?  If so, what are they?

6.    
Please
provide the Committee a list of all entities currently under investigation for
employing individuals that failed to disclose contributions from foreign
governments.  Is this publicly available?  If not, do you plan to make that list public?
If not, why not?

7.    
Does
NSF regularly work with the Justice Department, State Department, and/or the
Intelligence Community to properly track, assess, and analyze threats from
foreign actors of potential theft, improper disclosure or manipulation of data
collected and results reached through taxpayer-funded research, and the
corresponding impact or effect on national security?  If not, why not? If so, please describe those
agency relationships. 

8.    
Please
provide a list of all instances in the past five years in which the following
occurred: (1) foreign actors used systematic and long-term efforts to influence
NSF researchers; (2) foreign actors worked to transmit to other countries intellectual
property produced by NSF-supported research; (3) foreign actors contributed
resources to NSF-funded researchers in ways that could impact the integrity of
the research; and (4) researchers failed to disclose foreign financial support.  For each instance, please describe in detail
the nature of the violation and whether a referral was made to the NSF Inspector
General or the Justice Department.

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