NSF official discusses concerns surrounding international research security


When it comes to balancing the protection of federally funded research from foreign interference while still keeping the door open to international collaboration, Rebecca Keiser likens herself to a certain former U.S. secretary of state.

“Madeleine Albright used to say that she’s an optimist who worries a lot. I have to say I feel like I’m in that same count,” Keiser said. “I worry a lot because I feel like we’re better than where we were in 2018. We’re at a place where there isn’t as much conversation about closing down big areas of research.

“We are making sure that we include international collaboration in the conversation,” she added. “We’re aware that we have to avoid bias and xenophobia. What we haven’t done, though, is fully characterize, define and address what the real risk is, because this is a new language.”

Keiser, chief of Research Security Strategy and Policy at National Science Foundation, shared these concerns and their potential implications during an Oct. 10 seminar in the William Pitt Union Lower Lounge.

The NSF appointed Keiser to this newly created position in 2020. She works collaboratively with federal agencies, the academic community and the White House to create strategies that protect federally funded research while maintaining fruitful relations with international researchers.

Keiser previously led NSF’s Office of International Science and Engineering, coordinating the agency’s international strategy and managing internationally focused programs that further U.S. strategic interests.

Global concern

Keiser spoke at Pitt just before a trip to Brussels, Belgium, “to talk with the European Union about research security and integrity issues.” That trip was to be followed by a Nordic country-focused dialogue in Sweden, then further discussions back in the Americas. 

“I want to assure you that this is not a U.S. effort alone. This is something that we are dealing with globally and internationally,” she said. “Because we are all interested in, of course, preserving the integrity of the research system, and we’re all concerned about international collaboration and making sure that it continues and that it’s encouraged.”

Introducing Keiser, Rob Rutenbar, senior vice chancellor for research, noted that Pitt, which recently surpassed $1 billion in external research funding, is a global institution and “one especially that’s fully committed to its international collaborations.”

Sprung from a perception that some U.S. academics failed to disclose foreign engagements to their institutions and federal sponsors, the CHIPS and Science Act that President Biden recently signed into law stipulates new research security requirements for U.S. government-funded investigators.

“Most people here today probably understand that the landscape of research security at the national scale has been in flux for a few years,” Rutenbar said. “At a practical level, disclosure policies and procedures have historically been designed and defined individually and differently by various government funding agencies and partners. But the good news is we see this becoming somewhat more harmonized, maybe making it easier for everybody to ensure compliance.

“Obviously at Pitt, we are fully committed to upholding all laws governing research, innovation and international partnerships,” he added, “but we also believe strongly in maintaining our place as a globally engaged university.”

With the NSF taking a lead in implementing research security measures for government-funding agencies, Keiser said a lot has changed in recent years.

“If I (gave) this talk to you in 2018, it would have been really different. We realized then that there were issues in research security (regarding) the inappropriate transfer of pre-publication research data and know-how,” she said, citing intellectual property theft, manipulation of the merit review process, and recruitment of researchers to work on behalf of other governments “in ways that were unethical and sometimes illegal.

“But at the time,” she added, “there was discussion by many lawmakers about closing down large areas of research to anything international.”

Such discussion included eliminating non-U.S. collaborators in artificial Intelligence research. “As you can imagine, that was concerning to us. We didn’t think that was the right path to take,” she said. “So even though we are still dealing with some of this concerning behavior, and we’re learning, our proactive efforts have led us to a much better place.”

NSF’s efforts seek to diminish the risk of shutting down avenues of research collaboration and “stifling American innovation.”

“None of us want that,” Keiser said. “We have benefited from international researchers coming to this country. We have benefited from innovating through the sharing of results and those challenging them, improving upon them and reproducing them. And of course, we want to continue that.”

Noting that universities have “stepped up greatly” and made “great progress” in improving processes to receive information and address potential conflicts of interest and commitment, Keiser still worries “that we do need to provide more clarity on what we mean by a beneficial international collaboration.”

National security memorandum

The heightened concern for research security stems from federal government funding of projects mired in potential unresolved conflicts that could compromise outcomes. “This is not only a misuse of taxpayer funding, and questioning research that should be for the public good,” Keiser said, “but it also means that the vast majority of researchers who were honest did not get funded.”

On average, NSF funds about 20 percent of all the proposals it receives, but that can dip as low as 8 percent, “because of the lack of funding we have,” she said. “And so if somebody does get funding based on something that is dishonest, it’s not fair to the whole system.”

NSF worked with the U.S. government interagency community to develop the National Security Presidential Memorandum 33. Released in January 2021 with implementation guidance following a year later, the policy focuses on “working together among government agencies to harmonize what needs to be disclosed to us and how it should be disclosed,” Keiser noted, including implementation-guidance requirements for research institutions receiving more than $50 million in federal funding.

“And we provide clear information on consequences for violations of policy rules and laws that govern the grant-making process,” she said, adding that an important basic tenet of the implementation guidance is a “great focus” on equity and fairness and avoiding bias and xenophobia.

NSF’s development of research security programs includes guidance for institutions to establish travel reviews, export controls and cybersecurity. “They need to have a research security training program, but we know that more standards are needed, more guidance is needed and a process to certify that you have such a program is needed,” she said.

The NSF is awarding four training modules that it funds along with the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. departments of energy and defense, expected by November. “Then we will be working together with the awardees to develop the training so that it will be released over the next few months.”

Assessing risk

The Biden-approved CHIPS and Science Act requires NSF to establish a Risk Assessment Center to be run by an existing non-governmental organization or consortium. Keiser expressed hope that the center “will provide tools the research community can use to assess risks and research security tools to better develop and promote good international collaboration,” she said, while providing a “forum for engagement with the research community and ways that we can hear from you about concerns, issues, and ways that we can help better.”

Addressing an audience member’s question about the overall scale and risk level of the security problems, Keiser said it’s challenging because of information not disclosed to NSF.

“We have established an analytics program at NSF to try to better understand and assess the scope and the scale,” she said, noting nondisclosure could be based on certain security risks, omissions or mistakes. “We’re comparing the information provided to us with metadata from some of the large databases as well as International Patents Database to see what’s out there as far as appointments, funding, etc. that should have been provided to us and wasn’t.

“We are on the path to better understanding what the scope is,” she added, “but it’s going to take a bit more time to get there.”

Another seminar attendee asked if there could be more of a grassroots effort to convey the “risk of mission failure” if research integrity and security are not properly pursued.

“I agree completely,” Keiser responded. “I think in order to assist with that type of grassroots effort, we as the government do owe you more information. We owe you more examples of what we’re talking about of what’s happening. We owe you more data like I’m talking about with the analytics. And we owe you more information on what you can do about it in the tools.

“And so that’s what I hope we can provide so that you can pursue this, because as you said, it really is about risk to the whole system,” she said. “And to our mission.”

Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at shannonw@pitt.edu.


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