Mar 31, 2024 - Science

A new world for science research security

Illustration of a security guard wearing a lab coat, safety goggles and an ear piece.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Countries around the world are debating and deploying new rules and tools to try to minimize the risks and maximize the benefits of increasingly global scientific research.

Why it matters: These policies will shape the course of science and the technologies it powers — as well as govern who collaborates with whom.

Driving the news: A new report commissioned by the National Science Foundation (NSF) urged the agency to "proceed with caution" before adding controls over fundamental science research.

Friction points: Many scientists argue an open research environment where results and hypotheses can be tested and exchanged is vital for science.

  • Some security experts concerned about IP theft and foreign interference in research are calling for controls on access to scientific information or restricting collaborations in AI, aerospace, advanced materials and other fields.
  • Other experts warn emerging technologies are being developed on different paths in various countries. They argue collaborations provide a window into the capabilities of other countries and a way to influence global science and tech standards.

The big picture: Fundamental research in some areas of physics, chemistry, biology, materials science and other fields is changing, according to the report.

  • Scientific collaborations between countries are increasing.
  • Science and tech competition is, too, as countries invest in education, scientific infrastructure and research.
  • The path from "basic science" to practical technology is shorter than in the past as advances are more rapidly commercialized.
  • Many science and tech advances related to defense are increasingly coming from civilians and companies, not governments. These dual-use technologies have massive commercial value but could be deployed by militaries or repurposed for defense.

Faced with this new world, governments are re-examining how to handle sensitive research.

Between the lines: Many of the concerns — and the shift in the science world order — are driven by China's rapid rise.

  • The U.S. has traditionally excelled at basic science research and remained a largely open system, says Ivan Kanapathy of Beacon Global Strategies who previously worked on the National Security Council under the Trump and Biden administrations.
  • China has largely focused on commercializing technology, "including through the acquisition of intellectual property from overseas," and its research system is intertwined with the political environment, he says.
  • "U.S. government policies and non-governmental engagement on S&T collaboration with China must acknowledge these realities," he says.
  • Most recently, a push by Chinese leadership for scientific self-reliance has spurred investment in basic research. But while China is expanding its international collaborations in science, it still has a strong domestic focus.

The latest: The new report from JASON, a panel of scientists who provide independent assessments to the government, encourages NSF not to designate broad scientific fields as sensitive, an approach it says is "problematic."

  • Instead, it recommends NSF assess the sensitivity of proposed research on a project-by-project basis by considering its potential application, how mature the technology is and its "direct and predictable" impact on national security. It offers several steps to potentially mitigate the risks of any projects deemed sensitive.
  • The report also advises against expanding the definition of "controlled unclassified information" that is subject to export controls and other restrictions to include fundamental research areas.
  • The authors argue controls would increase the cost of research, shrink the talent pipeline, reduce the number of U.S. organizations conducting fundamental research related to national defense and hinder the free flow of research in a way that "negatively impacts broader U.S. economic and national security interests."

What they're saying: Rebecca Keiser, NSF's chief of research security strategy and policy, says the agency is now reviewing the recommendations to determine what it will implement.

  • The project-by-project approach is "reasonable," says Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities, where the rubber hits the road for these policies.
  • He adds that broad restrictions on entire categories of research would "harm our ability to advance fundamental science in critical areas."

NSF is establishing a Research on Research Security (RORS) program to understand the scope and scale of research security issues from a "rigorous academic perspective," Keiser says. The agency and others publish some information about cases but there isn't comprehensive data about the issue.

  • The agency is also developing a machine learning tool that could be used to analyze grants, papers and other related documents and identify "affiliations, professional appointments, sources of funding that weren't disclosed to us that might be big conflicts of commitment or conflicts of interest," Keiser says.

Research security debates and concerns aren't limited to the U.S.

  • In January, Canada announced it is adopting broad restrictions for some scientific fields. Researchers applying for government funding of work in "sensitive technology research areas" will have to attest they aren't affiliated with organizations Canada is concerned pose a risk to its national security. (All on the current list are in Russia, China and Iran.) If they are tied to those organizations, the application is ineligible.
  • The EU, Korea and Japan are also hammering out research security policies, with some calling for alignment among allies.
  • The G7 is also taking up the issue and in February released guidelines and "best practices for secure and open research."

What to watch: The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is currently developing its Research Security Program Standard Requirement.

  • A 2021 national security memorandum directed OSTP to establish research security standards for universities and other research institutions.
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