Skip to main content

Frequently Asked Questions – Foreign Influence

Initial posting: August 2019
Last updated: March 2021

Since the Office for Research (OR) provided “Guidance Regarding Foreign Influence and Involvement in University Research” in February 2019 and additional context in February 2020 and also in April 2021, OR has continued to follow the heightened activity concerning “foreign influence” in academic research. OR is providing these FAQs to keep the research community apprised of developments regarding “foreign influence” and address common questions. Federal government concerns and actions on this topic, however, continue to evolve.   These FAQs are based on current guidance provided by federal agencies. OR continues to monitor the topic and will regularly update the FAQs.

Q1: What are the specific concerns regarding “foreign influence” in the academic setting?

The FBI and other federal government agencies have expressed concern that some foreign actors, particularly foreign state adversaries, are seeking to acquire U.S. academic research and information illicitly or illegitimately in order to advance their scientific, economic, and military development goals through the exploitation of the culture of collaboration and openness on university campuses.

More specifically, NIH has identified three areas of concern:  diversion of intellectual property; peer reviewers inappropriately sharing confidential information on grant applications; and failure of researchers at NIH-funded U.S. institutions to disclose substantial resources from other organizations, including foreign governments.

Q2: What are “foreign talent recruitment programs” and why is there concern about them?

The federal government is concerned that foreign talent recruitment programs may be used by foreign governments to acquire, legally and illegally, U.S. government-funded scientific research in order to dominate high technology sectors currently led by U.S. entities. As described by the FBI, these programs target individuals who are working in technological fields of interest to the foreign government, offering competitive salaries, state-of-the-art research facilities and/or honorific titles in an effort to encourage the transfer of ideas and intellectual property.

Q3: What is the federal government doing to address concerns about foreign talent recruitment programs?

At present, there is no generally applicable U.S. legal or regulatory prohibition on participation in a foreign recruitment program. However, the Department of Energy (DOE) recently issued an internal directive that prohibits DOE employees and contractor employees from participating in certain foreign talent recruitment programs to ensure protection of U.S. competitive and national security interests as well as DOE program objectives.  Similarly, NSF announced a policy prohibiting NSF personnel and Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) detailees to NSF from participating in foreign government talent recruitment programs due to risk concerns.

Q4: What steps must I take in response to these concerns?

Continue to adhere to OR’s February 2019 Guidance, as well as subsequent guidance shared in February 2020 and April 2021. Make your sponsors aware of your collaborations and interactions with foreign entities that support or contribute to your research program; federal agencies are expecting a thorough account of touchpoints between your research program and any foreign entity.

  • If you are NIH funded: In July 2019 the NIH published FAQs regarding “Other Support and Foreign Components,” which provide more detail on NIH’s expectations regarding what qualifies as “other support” and when a project includes a “foreign component.” These clarifications address how to account appropriately for visiting scholars, start-up and other internal funds, and foreign collaborations, even if no grant funds are expended on the collaboration. Additionally, Michael Lauer, NIH’s Deputy Director for Extramural Research, has blogged on the topic of “other support,” providing examples of what should be disclosed.
  • If you are NSF funded: In July 2019, the NSF sent out a reminder in the form of a “Dear Colleague Letter” on research protection. As noted in this letter, NSF is currently evaluating proposed clarifications to its proposal disclosure requirements, including completion of Current and Pending Support documents, which would be effective January 2020.

Q5: Do I need to end my foreign collaborations and/or stop welcoming foreign students and visitors into my lab?

Northwestern has always and will continue to encourage and support foreign collaborations.  However, consistent with federal agency guidance you should provide information to your research sponsors about all foreign collaborations and ensure that all foreign Research Visitors are screened through the Office for Export Controls Compliance, confirming that there are no restrictions upon hosting such visitors.   That said, there remains considerable concern with foreign talent programs. If you are involved in or are invited to participate in such a program, you should obtain guidance from your associate dean for research as well as from your research sponsors.

Q6: I have a visitor in my lab who is supported by his/her home foreign institution. S/he is not funded by any of my federal grants. Do I need to account for this visitor in proposals or progress reports? If so, how?

We do not have specific guidance from all sponsors on this topic, however, per NIH guidelines, this person’s work on the project should be documented as follows:

  1. As “Other Support” because the externally funded individual is a “resource available in direct support of [your] research endeavors.” The NIH recently clarified that “all research resources including, but not limited to, foreign financial support, research or laboratory personnel, lab space, scientific materials, … must be reported.”
  2. As a “Participant” in the progress report if the person worked on a project for more than a month in any given year (see 4 Section D – Participants). Additionally, the person’s “primary affiliation” is determined by where the work was done for the project: if the individual is affiliated with a foreign organization but worked on the award solely in the U.S., the “primary affiliation” is not foreign;; if work was performed while outside of the U.S., the primary affiliation should be noted as foreign.
  3. As a “Foreign Component” if the individual performed part of the work while in your Northwestern lab, but also made a significant contribution to the project a from his/her home institution, or any other foreign location (e.g. collecting data at a foreign site, running samples on instrumentation there, and/or will be a co-author on publications arising from the grant).

Q7: I have family in countries outside the United States and I travel for personal reasons. Do I need to disclose all travel to the University – even if it is unrelated to my Northwestern work?

Note, however, that if you travel internationally with your work laptop or other device, you should be mindful of any sensitive data that the device may contain and take steps to ensure the security of those data.  Please refer to this memo on travel with laptops and guidance from NUIT on device security.

Q8: How do I know if a company, university, or other entity creates risk? Do you have examples of entities that I should not work with or that invite extra scrutiny?

The federal government maintains lists of entities that are higher risk, information that changes frequently. Northwestern uses software called Visual Compliance to screen proposed partners of Northwestern against these lists, including sponsors of research, proposed vendors or subcontractors, and others. One well-publicized example of a company that has received federal government attention is Huawei, which the federal government recently placed on a restricted list. Please contact the Export Controls Compliance Office if you have any questions about engaging with foreign entities – including accepting gifts.

Q9: I have been invited to a foreign institution to present at a conference. If I attend, do I need to disclose my participation to sponsors? To Northwestern?

In general, one-time travel to present at a conference would not require disclosure to sponsors. If, however, that travel establishes a relationship with a foreign university, government, or other entity (e.g., results in an honorary or visiting appointment or an offer to set up laboratory space at that institution), then that may need to be disclosed, depending on the sponsor and their specific guidelines. You should also obtain guidance from your associate dean for research.

Q10: I am getting ready to submit a paper with many — possibly hundreds — of co-authors, some of which are foreign and were undoubtedly funded by grants in their home country (i.e., foreign funding). Does each of those individuals need to be accounted for as a Foreign Component?

Please reach out to your NIH Grants Management Specialist or Program Officer to confirm whether or not these individuals need to be listed. When required, disclosure of foreign co-authors to the NIH should occur prior to publication. Other sponsors have not specifically commented on this; should you have questions, please consult your sponsor point of contact.

Other Resources

Questions regarding these FAQs can be directed to the Conflict of Interest Office Export Controls Compliance Office, and/or your Grants Officer in Sponsored Research.

NIH Extramural News:  Breaches of Peer Review Integrity (June 25, 2019)

Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC):   NIH and Undue Foreign Influence at U.S. Research Institutions (July 2019)