June 24, 2021

Rethinking Research Security

By Ainikki Riikonen and Emily Weinstein

The January 2021 arrest of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Dr. Gang Chen reignited a heated debate about research security: How can or should the United States protect the gains of innovation without damaging the very research base it wants to protect? The U.S. government has rightfully identified the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as an adversary intent on stealing technology for its national interests, and the Department of Justice established the China Initiative as a countermeasure. But the China Initiative misses the mark on an effective approach to research security. It is out of alignment with evolving research security initiatives in the rest of the federal government. It alienates the research community at best and, at worst, puts those within it of Chinese and other Asian ethnicities in an atmosphere of undue suspicion inflamed by presumptive narratives about “loyalty to China.” In its current form, research security under the China Initiative may damage America’s ability to innovate and continue defining the cutting edge of technological research in the long term.

At a moment when the Biden administration is assessing and recalibrating China-related initiatives for protecting U.S. economic and national security, the department should restructure research security as a separate effort from the China Initiative and adopt a country-neutral approach better-aligned with other U.S. government initiatives. The Justice Department and U.S. government sponsors of research funding should also offer a period of amnesty for research institutions and personnel to adapt to anticipated updates to disclosure requirements.

Research security under the China Initiative may damage America’s ability to innovate and continue defining the cutting edge of technological research in the long term.

As part of these efforts, the department should establish a dedicated research security initiative distinct from the China Initiative, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) should reestablish its National Security Higher Education Advisory Board (NSHEAB) as part of these efforts. The FBI had established the NSHEAB in 2005 to “foster outreach and promote understanding” between itself and research institutions on both counterintelligence matters and the open culture of research institutions. The NSHEAB’s membership included senior leaders from U.S. universities such as university presidents and chancellors. A report from Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) argues that, because government officials are not typically involved in research, they often lack the expertise and situational awareness needed to protect important research and engage effectively with the research community. A new NSHEAB would bridge this gap and capitalize on a rare point of consensus: in 2018, Republicans, Democrats and higher education associations had all expressed concern about its then-recent dissolution.

Read the full article from Lawfare.

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