Faculty debate undue foreign influence in research

Jan. 30, 2024, 3:13 a.m.

The Faculty Senate scrutinized policies on undue foreign influence on research during its first meeting of winter quarter Thursday.

David Studdert, the vice provost and dean of research (VPDoR), George Triantis, the senior associate vice provost for research and Jessa Albertson, the senior director of research security presented on the University’s plan to comply with government requirements without compromising academic freedom.

The presentation followed a $1.9 million settlement between Stanford and the Department of Justice in October. The deal settled allegations that the University knowingly failed to disclose faculty members’ sources of “foreign support” on grant proposals to federal agencies. The federal government has recently moved toward a crackdown on foreign influence in scientific research, particularly from China.

Some professors, including several whose grants the government publicly cited, previously voiced criticism of the University’s communication during the settlement process and concerns about unfair reputational harm.

Members of the Senate questioned the University’s handling of the settlement. Some asked about Stanford’s advocacy for federal requirements that respect academic freedom, beyond compliance with existing ones.

Studdert proposed strengthening Stanford’s research security program and instituting a “pragmatic” strategy for dealing with compliance issues as they arose. Albertson and Triantis outlined the government’s national security concerns and implications for research at Stanford.

Studdert said this approach entailed working with researchers and the government case by case to “see if there is a way through.” The University would explore exceptions or workarounds to federal requirements where permitted, he noted.

Studdert also set forth “high-level” plans to address undue foreign influence and compliance issues. First, he called for a well-resourced research security office that could better respond to government requests, “because they are getting more common and more complicated.”

Second, Studdert said the Global Engagement Review Program — a group of faculty “experienced in international affairs” — would provide recommendations to researchers who encounter “difficult engagements” over issues of foreign influence.

Next, Studdert said a VPDoR initiative was underway to “increase the quality and efficiency” of disclosures of foreign affiliations, which he said are “areas that the government is very interested in right now.”

Finally, Studdert said the University was working to “shape the debate” on government requirements through conversations with federal agencies and regulators to advise them on international engagement’s importance in research.

“How do we maintain and protect global engagement?” Studdert asked. “Should Stanford revisit its openness and nondiscrimination policies to strike a balance between access to funding and our values?”

Faculty members and representatives met Studdert’s questions with their own.

Lawrence Berg, a fifth-year Ph.D. student and the at-large student representative, brought up “an elephant in the room,” referring to the settlement deal and government allegations that faculty failed to disclose foreign affiliations. 

“What is the University doing to actively evaluate current faculty members to make sure they’re compliant with these rules?” he asked.

Studdert said he wouldn’t “go into details of individual cases,” but noted that the settlement involved “allegations, not proven facts.”

“We worked very closely with the faculty every step of the way through this process,” Studdert said.

Computer science professor James Landay — whose grant numbers were cited in a DOJ press release about the settlement — expressed frustration that professors were only notified, and not consulted, during the process.

“That was very wrong,” Landay said. “As faculty, the main thing we have is our reputation … Our reputation was harmed by that settlement, when the Department of Justice put out [a] press release that [made] us look like frauds.”

Computer science professor Philip Levis asked whether the VPDoR differentiated gifts from “sponsored” research. Critics of the settlement deal previously raised a similar point, saying rules for disclosing gifts were unclear.

“This is an area we’re looking at,” Studdert said. “They are quite different … Issues of academic freedom are more closely connected to sponsored research than to gifts.”

Triantis described a potential chilling effect on research during his remarks: “International cooperation is essential to the production of knowledge.”

Although Triantis acknowledged research findings at Stanford are public, he cited the government’s fear that foreign entities could gain access to unpublished work practices and data or scientific discoveries during a “window of vulnerability” before publication.

“Knowing a result six months before the world does gives you a huge advantage,” he said.

Professors could face long periods of review from federal agencies before publication and might have to screen their “personnel for associations with countries of concern” in light of the government’s priorities, Triantis said. Scientists and their employees could even be excluded from participating in projects based on their nationality, whether because of federal mandates or researchers’ anxieties about hiring a foreigner.

Triantis concluded that federal policies might “impinge” on Stanford’s fundamental research principles. He cited Stanford’s policy of non-discrimination in research, highlighting protections against discrimination based on nationality.

“We see a collision, or a tension, between some of our key policies and what we’re seeing in these grant forms,” Studdert agreed.

George Porteous ’27 is a University desk writer. He is from New York, NY, and plans to study History and Creative Writing. Find him on X @georgedporteous. Reach out to news ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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