Foreign Influence and Its Impact on Research Integrity – A Four-Part Series | Part 4: A Global Concern

By SRAI News posted 05-12-2021 09:50 AM


Foreign Influence and Its Impact on Research Integrity – A Four-Part Series | Part 4: A Global Concern

In this four-part series, we will discuss Part 1: What is Foreign Influence; Part 2: Federal Agencies’ Policies on Foreign Influences; Part 3: Recent Developments in Improper Influence on Scientific Research; and Part 4: A Global Concern.

Most of what we hear about foreign influence is viewed through the lens of the concerns raised over the past three years by United States (US) federal granting agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF).  It is clear to those involved in educating the research administration community that these concerns are increasingly shared by countries from around the world and are not limited to the concerns first raised by the US.  The European Union (EU), Australia, and Japan among others have initiated conversations and calls for stricter policies aimed at curbing this growing threat to international collaborations and research integrity.

The European University Association (EUA) (March 2021) recognizes the importance of balancing the need for promoting openness and international collaboration with recognizing that risk mitigation is necessary to alleviate the fact that not all countries share the same principles of integrity that threaten the goals of those institutions to strengthen research and innovation capacity for tackling global problems.  European universities are true global actors with the majority responding to an EUA survey that their researchers collaborate extensively.  Ninety-nine percent of universities reported collaborations with colleagues from other European counties, as well as North America, (84%), other European countries, and Asia, including 77% reporting collaborations with researchers from China.   The EUA urged the European Commission ascribe to a set of principles to preserve and protect the openness of science and research collaboration across borders as an integral component of helping European universities realize their goals. 

The Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC) is providing legal resources and education to those receiving inquiries from the FBI.   Jenny Lee, a social scientist who studies scientific collaboration and international relations at the University of Arizona in Tucson states, “We can safely assume that any Chinese scientist is very aware that they are under suspicion.  This would cause them to consider collaborating with other scientists and other locations of the world where they will not be perceived as potential criminals.”  The results could be disastrous for international collaborations.

Japan’s Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (CSTI) announced it was taking a cautious approach but paying close attention to the science policy changes in other countries but were feeling pressures to strengthen requirements for disclosure of foreign interference (Mallapaty, S. August 4, 2020).  The risk to research conducted by Japanese universities is perceived to be less than that pursued by many US institutions because Japanese universities prohibit military research.  The CSTI is taking a more cautious approach due to concern about the financial instability that might result a stricter immigration policy. 

Markson (August 24, 2020) first exposed concerns that technology supported with funds provided by Australian taxpayers had been released to the Chinese Communist Party. A report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute warned of technology breaches related to lasers and other military technology in Australian and similar concerns were expressed by a New Zealand academic who published a report about the risks. The expose revealed that dozens of Australian researchers had been recruited by China’s Thousand Talents program.

Markson and Loussikian (November 7, 2020) reported the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) has been urging universities to strengthen their regimes for academics to report their foreign financial ties. One senator who stated that Australia was playing catch-up with other countries is investigating such ties and the Australian Parliament initiated an investigation based Markson’s reports.  The ASIO announced that it would be issuing a list of targeted technologies to assist universities to target their risk mitigation efforts.  

Rahman et al (March 2020) cited cases from Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Australia which revealed the interplay from multiple threats including soft power, which is defined as an element of foreign influence using subtle, non-coercive tactics to shift attitudes and perceptions through non-coercive means like culture, political values, and foreign policies.  Soft power can take the form of economic assistance, public diplomacy, and information conveyed through cultural media such as film, television, op-eds, public statements, advertising campaigns, and books. While soft power has its origins in political influence, academia can be a target.  The report specifically calls out the subversive intent behind the Confucius Institutes which has come under extreme scrutiny and suspicion in the US and Australia.  The US has effectively dismantled the Confucius Institute program. 

The world will be watching as the trial of Dr. Charles Lieber beings later this  year.  Dr. Lieber, the Harvard professor accused of failure to disclose in funding applications to the NIH his ties and financial interests with entities in China, will pursue a trial while battling terminal cancer.  Dr. Lieber has refused any plea deal and seeks a swift trial to restore his reputation as a respected scientist and his attorneys have implied that Harvard will be drawn into the fray.  This case will have implications for other institutions as it is expected Dr. Lieber will blame his failure to report such ties on Harvard’s lack of guidance and procedures to inform him of those obligations. At the core of his defense is his allegation that Harvard’s policies for disclosure are vague and unclear.

That justification is not unique as researchers question why failure to comply with these longstanding policies are now viewed as criminal activities.  Redden (March 2, 2021) asserts that the focus on highly publicized cases uniquely targets China, and researchers of Chinese descent.  Professor Lieber was one of few exceptions.  The Department of Justice has suggested there might be a one-time amnesty program for researchers to report past affiliations that were not disclosed.  This would be a welcome reprieve for many researchers, particularly those of Chinese descent, to regain compliance.  It is a vastly different offense to have not reported an affiliation or relationship that was entered into in the past couple of years since this issue has been well-publicized versus one from five or more years ago when such affiliations were encouraged and rewarded.

Academic research relies on the integrity of the scientists performing the work. Discovery will always benefit from collaboration and international perspectives.  The concern about foreign influence is a global concern as it threatens everyone, whether through intentional malfeasance or honest error.  In the same way we are finally emerging from isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must assist our researchers to be compliant and continue to collaborate compliantly.

European University Association. March 2021. A global approach to research, innovation, education, and youth EUA input to the European Commission Communication. Geneva, Switzerland. Retrieved from 

Mallapaty, S. August 4, 2020.  Japan considers tougher rules on research interference amid US-China tensions.  Nature.  Washington, DC.  Retrieved from   

Markson, S. August 24, 2020.  How the CCP recruits our best and brightest.  The Australian.  New South Wales, AU.  Retrieved from

Markson, S. & Loussikian, K. August 25, 2020. ASIO issues alert to universities over China links.  The Australian.  New South Wales, AU. Retrieved from

Rahman, M., Haciyakupoglu, G., Ang, B, Leong, D., Yang, J., and Yi-Ling, T. March 2020.  Cases of foreign interference in Asia: Policy report.  S. Rajatnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.  Singapore.

Redden, E. March 2, 2021. Reconsidering the China Initiative. Inside Higher Ed. Washington, DC.  Retrieved from

Sharma, Y . November 7, 2020. Europe sets out what are “safe” research links with China.  
Retrieved from

Subbaraman, N. October 9, 2020.  U.S. Civil-rights group offers support to researchers facing China scrutiny.  Nature. Washington, D.C.  Retrieved from  Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC)

Wang, A.Z.  April 7, 2021.  Lieber prepares for impending trail on federal charges as he battles incurable cancer.  The Harvard Crimson.  Cambridge, MA.  Retrieved from 

Author:  Dr. Susan Wyatt Sedwick, CRA is a senior consulting specialist with Attain Partners and an SRAI Distinguished Faculty.  She currently serves SRAI as a co-chair of the Education and Professional Development Committee.  She is a frequent author and speaker on the topics of improper influence, export controls, strategic planning, and human capital development.


Authored by Susan Wyatt Sedwick, Senior Consulting Associate
Attain Partners