I am writing today about an issue that is receiving increased attention by all major federal agencies that sponsor research at Northwestern and at our peer institutions: foreign influence in academic research. While Northwestern strongly supports international collaboration and values its partnerships with universities and other organizations worldwide, it is important that all faculty members understand the current regulatory landscape informing the research enterprise, and the actions that you should take in light of this reality.
Recently, the federal government and federal sponsors have expressed concerns about improper foreign influence in U.S. academic research. Examples of this include a letter sent by Francis Collins, director of the NIH, alerting the research community to “threats” from foreign entities, and the FY19 National Defense Authorization Act, which includes a provision alluding to the restriction of federal funding to institutions doing business with certain Chinese telecommunications companies.
As a result, academic research institutions have a heightened awareness and interest in understanding the relationships federally-funded faculty may have with foreign governments or entities. As Northwestern continues to strengthen existing international collaborations and pursue new opportunities that benefit our faculty, students, and research objectives, we ask that faculty and all principal investigators remain mindful of the following requirements:
Transparency in disclosure
- Be thorough and complete in accounting for all forms of research support, including from foreign sources and gifts, in NIH’s Other Support, the NSF’s Current and Pending and similar documentation submitted to other sponsors.
- Disclose financial interests and outside professional activities in eDisclosure – both annually and within 30 days of acquiring new interests as required by the Policy on Conflict of Interest and Conflict of Commitment and Policy on Conflict of Interest in Research. Activities requiring disclosure include support from foreign governments and foreign academic institutions, domestic and foreign consulting relationships, visiting positions at domestic and foreign institutions, investment in a start-up company, etc. The Conflict of Interest Office or your Dean’s Office can provide additional guidance on what to disclose.
- Ensure compliance with the University’s Anti-Bribery Policy prohibiting improper payments to government officials in order to avoid violation of the federal Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
- Discuss any invitation for any academic appointment or position at another domestic or international institution (visiting, honorary, or other) with your Dean’s Office prior to accepting the appointment, as required by the Faculty Handbook and Policy on Conflict of Interest and Conflict of Commitment. Visiting positions that result from one-time seminars at U.S. academic institutions do not require advance approval.
- Disclose to your Dean’s Office involvement in any foreign recruitment or “talent” programs. These programs are of particular interest to the federal government, as they are seen as presenting a uniquely high risk of undermining U.S. economic and security interests.
- Regulations around export controls are complex and constantly evolving, and there several issues to be considered before engaging in a wide range of export-controlled activities. Consult the University’s Expert Controls Compliance Office if you have any export control related questions.
- For example, several countries are under comprehensive federal embargo (Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and the Crimea Region of the Ukraine). Travel to/from these countries/territories should be disclosed to the Office for Export Controls Compliance as soon as possible in advance of the anticipated activity to ensure appropriate clearance can be obtained.
- International travelers should also consult with their IT department to ensure that any information carried abroad is properly secured and review the Export Controls Compliance FAQs, which provides guidance on traveling internationally.
- Additionally, the Export Controls Compliance Office should review all international visitors and foreign entities (e.g., vendors, contractors, universities) to ensure compliance with a variety of federal restricted party lists.
Policies for engaging visiting collaborators
- Visiting scientists are an asset to the University’s research program. In addition to restricted party screening, it is important to follow proper appointment processes to ensure that individuals are properly vetted, and that their access to Northwestern space and systems is appropriate for the proposed work.
- Be diligent in evaluating the nature of any visiting collaborators: visitors with extended stays, or who do not have the appropriate background for the anticipated research activity, must be carefully scrutinized. Any activity that raises suspicion should be thoroughly evaluated in consultation with your Dean’s Office.
Proper security of materials, data and confidential information
- When materials or data will be shared with other institutions, foreign or otherwise, it is often prudent to have an agreement, such as a material transfer agreement (MTA), data use agreement (DUA), or nondisclosure agreement (NDA), in place governing the use of those materials or data. Having an agreement also allows Northwestern to complete all required internal controls and checks. The Office for Sponsored Research (OSR) provides guidance on these agreements.
- Remember that all agreements must be reviewed and signed by institutional officials with appropriate signature authority.
- Accepting any sensitive or controlled information under a research contract may require heightened cybersecurity requirements. Always consult with OSR to confirm that these requirements are properly managed.
- To ensure that intellectual property is protected and, when required, appropriately reported to sponsors, promptly disclose any potential inventions or other intellectual property to the Innovations and New Ventures Office (INVO).
- If you are involved in a startup based on licensed technology from Northwestern, the company should disclose to INVO any investments, partnerships, or sublicenses made with foreign entities.
- Information gained through peer review processes – whether reviewing grant applications or publications – is confidential and should never be shared. The Collins letter specifically reminds the research community to adhere to the confidentiality of these processes.
Jay Walsh, PhD
Vice President for Research
Professor of Biomedical Engineering