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Foreign Influence Concerns and Recommendations for Research

November 25, 2020

Foreign Influence Concerns and Recommendations for Research

Research institutions in the Kuali community have been talking with us about the challenges presented by the increasing focus on undue foreign influence in research. With many institutions struggling for solutions, we hope to help by sharing this summary of findings and recommendations gathered from community feedback and industry experts. This report includes:  

  • Catalysts behind the rising concern over foreign influence
  • Challenges schools are facing with foreign influence
  • Steps schools can take immediately to mitigate their challenges 
  • Technology solutions from Kuali Research that help institutions track, manage and report on international activities and relationships and thereby mitigate risks 

Where is the concern coming from?

Since early 2018, the higher education research community has become aware of the US federal government’s increasing concern over the influence of foreign entities in research. Over the past 24 months, nearly all US federal grantmaking agencies have issued statements or policies concerning the need for schools to exercise careful oversight of research and associated activities. As noted by the Association of American Universities (AAU) in a letter dated May 19, 2020: “Over the past year, federal intelligence, security, and science agencies, as well as members of Congress, have continued to express concerns to us regarding the participation of academic researchers in foreign talent recruitment programs, theft of intellectual property, breaches in scientific integrity, targeted cyberattacks, and other forms of undue foreign government interference relating to research performed at U.S. universities.” 

Finding an appropriate balance between effective monitoring and oversight in these areas while maintaining an open and welcoming campus and supporting the principles of academic freedom present a complex challenge to US colleges and universities. The University of California Office of the President (UCOP) notes that the federal government is primarily concerned with the following activities:

  • Peer review violations
  • Failure to disclose substantial foreign resources:
  • Foreign employment arrangements
  • Foreign grant support that creates problems with overlap, or over-commitment
  • Non-disclosure of substantial foreign research support
  • free labor (visiting scholar/student funded by a foreign source)
  • Talents awards
  • Foreign grants – Hidden transfers of information, know-how, data, person-time
  • Failure to disclose significant foreign financial Conflict of Interest:
  • Equity in foreign companies
  • Foreign patents that leverage US tax-payer funded work
  • Compliance with Regulatory Requirements: U.S. Export Control laws and regulations establish a set of requirements for the transfer of technology and data to foreign countries and/or foreign nationals in the U.S and sanctions from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) restrict interactions with individuals or entities on the sanctions list.

The federal government is clear about the expectations around disclosures and reporting. As recently as June 22, 2020, the Department of Education issued a reminder to institutions about their statutory reporting obligation under Section 117 of the Higher Education Act, which requires that institutions report contracts with foreign sources, and gifts from foreign sources with a value of $250,000 or more, alone or in combination. This is in addition to the regulations and disclosure requirements issued by federal grantmaking agencies, Congress, the White House, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and other offices and subcommittees.

The AAU is among the professional organizations advising schools on how to respond to these concerns. Again, in its May letter, the AAU notes that “We believe it is imperative for universities to take these concerns seriously and to continue to take proactive measures on campus, even with the COVID-19 related challenges facing research universities.” Many institutions have begun assessing policies and procedures related to the review of gifts and grants with international components, conflict of interest/commitment disclosures, export control regulations, visiting scholars, and formal and informal collaborations.

Challenges Faced By Institutions

 In its January 2020 publication, Framework for Review of Individual Global Engagements in Academic Research, COGR suggests: “Institutions may wish to consider ways to coordinate or streamline the disclosure of information to “connect the dots,” reduce administrative burden and increase inter-institutional collaboration in reviewing and approving international activities. Such coordination also helps streamline institutional responses to federal requirements for disclosure.”  

For most institutions, the data needed to track and monitor the types of activities noted above are not centrally stored or managed. Data live in a variety of local systems across campus, not accessible by staff members outside of a certain department or business area. In cases where data elements are available in ERP systems, they aren’t flagged or otherwise made visible in a way that would support review and analysis. In some cases, institutions are still relying on manual processes to review and flag situations of concern. In addition, data related to potential foreign influence may require review and approval beyond the routine approval processes already in place for teaching, research, or administrative activities. Table 1 depicts business data related to concern over foreign influence in research, and where those data are typically captured.

Foreign Influence Data Dispersion
Table 1: Foreign Influence Data Dispersion

Institutions also face challenges with regard to awareness and training.  In outreach conducted by Kuali in the fall of 2019, all administrators we met with shared some degree of concern that their institutions are not fully adhering to federal guidelines and/or that researchers don’t fully understand what their responsibilities are in this area. 

Universities face an urgent need to address these challenges and comply with federal requirements. A series of highly publicized indictments have made clear that the penalties for non compliance are both institutional and individual. According to an article in ASBMB Today, in the two years since NIH’s Working Group on Foreign Influences on Research Integrity was established, “the NIH has been investigating hundreds of scientists in an attempt to root out those who are collaborating with foreign governments without informing the NIH. High-profile scientists, such as Charles Lieber of Harvard University, have been indicted on charges related to foreign influences to research integrity. Several have pleaded guilty to tax violations and other crimes.”

US colleges and universities engaged in research have a clear need for a software solution to help individuals stay compliant with disclosure requirements related to international activities and relationships, and to allow institutions to track, monitor, and analyze data associated with potential foreign influence in research, as well as analytics to help illuminate areas of risk. 

What immediate steps can institutions take?

The following steps can help you plan an approach:

  1. Inventory data sources. Where do the data needed to meet tracking and reporting requirements currently reside? Are there existing sources? If so, prepare an inventory of data sources and data owners/trustees across campus.
  2. Map process flows and triggers for existing data elements. Who enters the data elements, and what processes trigger their entry? Who reviews and approves? Are these data available for internal and/or reporting?
  3. Identify gaps. Are there data elements that are currently not captured at all, or that are available on paper or in siloed storage (PDFs on a shared drive, for example)?  
  4. Make a plan. Given available resources, what options exist to aggregate and share data with key stakeholders across campus? Are local tools available for use?
  5. Leverage communities and micro-communities to share solutions. Your peer institutions are struggling with many of the same challenges. Consider how cross-institution groups of professionals can collaborate and share resources and ideas to solve problems.

How can Kuali Research help?

Software as a Service

The Kuali Research suite offers comprehensive, modern, user-friendly software, designed for the cloud, to help schools manage key data in areas related to international activities and relationships, and a best-in-class data analytics package to help illuminate areas of risk 

Export Control Management: Kuali's Export Control Management application solves the need for transparency, communication, and management of otherwise disparate data related to export control. In addition, our strategic partnership with Descartes Visual Compliance, the leading provider of restricted party screening software, allows us to offer preferred pricing bundles and an out of the box integration to customers of both products.

Comprehensive Review of Grants and Contracts: Kuali Sponsored Programs software guides and supports you through the full project lifecycle, from proposal development and submission to award closeout. We help your users navigate the ever-changing landscape of government regulations, institutional policies, and evolving guidelines to successfully win research awards and manage ongoing research projects. 

COI/COC Disclosure Review: Kuali Research Conflict of Interest (COI)/Conflict of Commitment (COC) simplifies the process of creating, updating, and tracking disclosures in our COI/COC system. Using our easy-to-configure module you can build a form and disclosure process tailored to your institution's Conflict of Interest (COI) and Conflict of Commitment (COC) policies and procedures. Configure instructions, hyperlinked references, and field-level help text to provide guidance to the reporter completing their disclosure.

Training of Faculty and Staff: Kuali offers a personnel training module where training courses and trainee data can be tracked. Training data can then be auto populated for personnel in the protocol for easy viewing by IACUC/IRB and proposal staff and reviewers.  We offer a direct integration with CITI as well as multiple APIs that can be used to load training data from other systems to accommodate the tracking of institutional, research, and regulatory training.

The Kuali Community

Kuali has spent nearly two decades learning how to create a community around software development. In today’s climate of increasing pressure to do more with less, our passionate, engaged community is thriving and helping institutions of all sizes solve problems with technology in an efficient, cost-effective way. Join our conversation as we plan for additional capability purpose-built for helping schools manage data related to international activities and relationships. Contact us through the button below if you would like to share your experiences with foreign influence, learn more about our current solutions, or offer input regarding future developments.


COGR Framework for Review of Individual Global Engagements in Academic Research, January 14, 2020, Schrag, N.; Christy, M.; Brako, L.; Mitchell, M.; Rivera, S.; Tahmassian, A.‍

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