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We Must Have Both

Over the past year, the federal government has expressed increasing concern about foreign interference in the university-based research that for decades has made America the world leader in scientific innovation. The federal intelligence agencies raising alarms have underlined the growing incidence and complexity of threats to universities, which take various forms and originate from an array of sources in cyberspace or from state-directed actors seeking critical information.

Facing these concerns, research universities are working -- and all higher education institutions must work -- to bolster the security of their research without sacrificing the openness and collaboration that serves as a keystone of their research enterprises. To do this effectively, we need a strong partnership with federal intelligence and security agencies.

Dating back to World War II, the distinct partnership between the federal government and America’s research universities has contributed directly to U.S. national defense and security. Federally sponsored research at universities has produced cures and treatments for devastating diseases, created the internet, and led to technologies vital to our security such as radar, lasers, precision-guided weapons and advanced body armor, to name just a few. The scientific environment that enabled such advances has been characterized by openness and the free flow of ideas and international talent -- attracting the world’s greatest minds to the United States.

The fact is that international students and faculty members, including those from China, play an integral role in higher education in the United States. Indeed, we have the world’s best research universities in part because we host these students and scholars. They provide invaluable contributions to college campuses and enrich the educational environment for all students. We must continue to support and welcome them.

At the same time, however, foreign actors can exploit such openness without proper safeguards. Even as universities seek to defend our values and the rights of our international students and faculty, we understand that it is our responsibility to secure the scientific integrity of the research we conduct on behalf of U.S. taxpayers. This is at the heart of our research partnership with the federal government.

Fortunately, those two goals are not mutually exclusive. America’s research universities have a strong track record of working with the government to secure classified or otherwise controlled information conducted on university campuses. Yet new challenges require that our institutions become ever more vigilant in effectively dealing with these issues.

Earlier this year, our two organizations, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and the Association of American of Universities, collected and widely disseminated a list of effective practices that our members are employing to protect and ensure the integrity of university-based research. We have found that many universities are now embedding research security into current review and training practices.

For example, they are adding instruction on security protocols to current training programs for students and faculty members. Many institutions are also examining and refining their policies for safeguarding intellectual property; securing faculty, staff and students on foreign travel; and overseeing international visitors to their campuses. Institutions are stepping up enforcement of conflict-of-interest, conflict-of-commitment and research integrity rules already on the books. These existing policies require university researchers to disclose any foreign affiliations and relationships as well as all external funding sources.

Drawing on this survey of effective practices, we have encouraged even more universities to:

  • examine their existing policies to see where there are gaps;
  • make sure faculty members are aware of, and in compliance with, existing security and disclosure requirements;
  • implement additional campus policies and procedures to bolster security;
  • create high-level, cross-campus working groups and task forces to facilitate coordination on research security issues; and
  • share any identified threats with relevant members of the campus community.

All this said, however, universities can’t address the challenge alone. Our universities are building new partnerships and strengthening their relationships with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other intelligence and security agencies at the local, regional and federal levels. The intelligence community has informed university leaders about key issues, and the FBI has been offering one-on-one briefings to campus presidents about potential risks to their institution’s research enterprise. We encourage university presidents who have not done so to take the FBI up on this offer.

To assist us further in addressing emerging threats, the FBI and intelligence community must provide more detail to the university community regarding security threats and breaches on their campuses. Too much information about specific security risks to our campuses remains classified and is unavailable to guide and inform effective and appropriate campuses responses. Imagine the nation’s intelligence agencies having information about possible threats to vital infrastructure, such as dams and bridges, but not providing local and state officials with information on which type of infrastructure is at risk. Only U.S. intelligence agencies have the tools and national perspective needed to identify these patterns.

We can safeguard ourselves from foreign threats without damaging the very open elements that have made our university-based research enterprise the best in the world. And it doesn’t require ending international research collaborations, which are foundational to scientific research advances. The nation’s research enterprise thrived even amid far more trying times, such as decades of a cold war. Now, as then, achieving research security while, at the same time, preserving scientific openness and maintaining international collaborations will be a challenging task. But it can be done, and we must accomplish both goals effectively for the U.S. scientific enterprise to continue to thrive.

Since its inception, the federal-university research partnership has been an extraordinary success. The relationship has evolved to meet society’s needs and to address emerging challenges to its dominance. It has and will continue to depend upon the free and open exchange of both ideas and talent.

Meanwhile, the threats in the months and years ahead will only grow more complex and multidimensional. As former research university presidents, we know presidential attention to an issue can stimulate action at an institution in a way no other approach can. Many university presidents are already driving change on their campuses. We urge those at other institutions to do so, because effectively addressing the full array of threats to research security will require a campuswide effort that only presidents can truly galvanize. The nation and the American people depend on it.


By Mary Sue Coleman and Peter McPherson.

This content was originally posted by Inside Higher Education