International Relationships and Activities

Introduction

The U.S. Government has expressed serious growing concerns regarding inappropriate influence by foreign entities over federally funded research (see Sources below). One issue that has moved to the forefront is the failure of federally-funded researchers at U.S. institutions to disclose their relationships and activities with foreign government, institutions, and funding agencies. Several Federal agencies have indicated that failure to disclose foreign relationships and activities may jeopardize eligibility for future funding.

Auburn University (AU) strongly encourages international collaborations, but it is important for our investigators to be transparent about their foreign relationships and activities (see memo dated February 21, 2019).  AU' s Office of the Vice President for Research & Economic Development (OVPRED) has compiled the following information to provide guidance and resources to remind AU researchers of their compliance obligations.

  1. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued a Notice on July 10, 2019, reminding research institutions that NIH-funded researchers must “report foreign activities through documentation of other support, foreign components, and financial conflict of interest to prevent scientific, budgetary, or commitment overlap” (NOT-OD-19-114). Other Support includes “all resources made available to a researcher in support of and/or related to all of their research endeavors, regardless of whether or not they have monetary value and regardless of whether they are based at the institution the researcher identifies for the current grant.” An FAQ can be found here.
     
  2. The National Defense Authorization Act, signed in August 2018, included Sec. 1286, which stated that “The Secretary of Defense shall, in consultation with other appropriate government organizations, establish an initiative to work with academic institutions who perform defense research and engineering activities . . . to limit undue influence, including through foreign talent programs, by countries to exploit United State Technology ... ”

On March 20, 2019 the Department of Defense issued a memo explicitly outlining disclosure requirements for all key personnel   listed on research and research-related educational activities supported by DoD grants and contracts.

  1. The National Science Foundation issued a Dear Colleague Letter on July 11, 2019, outlining its plans to “address emerging risks to the nation’s science and engineering enterprise.”
     
  2. The Department of Energy issued a directive dated June 7, 2019, mandating that “federal and contractor personnel fully disclose and, as necessary, terminate affiliations with foreign government-supported talent recruitment programs” on new DOE contracts and subcontracts. DOE is expected to issue a separate policy directive to implement the requirement on DOE grants and cooperative agreements.
     
  3. As a reminder, NASA has long-standing restrictions on using NASA funds to enter into agreements “to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company, at the prime recipient level or at any subrecipient level, whether the bilateral involvement is funded or performed under a no-exchange of funds arrangement” (grant restrictions, contract restrictions).

While most international collaborations are perfectly acceptable and encouraged, we urge researchers to err on the side of transparency. 

The items below contain guidance regarding the types of relationships and activities that AU researchers are expected to disclose:

  1. Foreign components of federally funded research should be disclosed on proposals, progress reports, and final technical reports. Under the NIH Grants Policy Statement, a Foreign Component is defined as “any significant scientific element or segment of a project outside of the United States, either by the recipient or by a researcher employed by a foreign organization, whether or not grant funds are expended" [emphasis added]. The definition of “foreign component” (which can be found here) may include a large number of collaborative activities, including “collaborations with investigators at a foreign site anticipated to result in co-authorship; use of facilities or instrumentation at a foreign site; or receipt of financial support or resources from a foreign entity.” Other sponsors have similar requirements to disclose foreign components.

There are multiple ways in which foreign components can be disclosed, e.g., 

  • Identifying a “foreign component” in an NIH grant application;
  • Listing a “non-U.S. performance site”;
  • Identifying foreign relationships and activities in a biosketch;
  • Checking “yes” to the question on the Cover Page Supplement Form asking, “Does this project involve activities outside of the United States or partnerships with international collaborators?”
  • Financial resources should be disclosed even if they relate to work that is performed outside of a researcher’s appointment period. For example, if a researcher with a 9-month appointment spends two months at a university outside of the U.S. during the summer conducting research under a foreign award, that activity should be disclosed.

 

Principal Investigators (PIs) should review all pending proposals and active awards to ensure that all foreign components have been disclosed. If a PI identifies an omission or error in a previously submitted proposal, the PI should contact the Office of Sponsored Programs (ospadmn@auburn.edu) or appropriate college-level designee to have the error corrected.

 

  1. AU researchers should ensure they disclose all applicable “Other Support” as required by federal sponsors.  “Other Support” may include resources and/or financial support, domestic or foreign, available in support of a researcher’s research endeavors. Such support should be disclosed on an “Other Support” or “Current & Pending” form. Sponsor guidelines may specify that all sources of support be disclosed, regardless of whether they are awarded through AU, through another institution, or provided directly to the researcher. (NIH’s most recent guidance can be found at NOT-OD-19-114. An FAQ can be found here.)  

An issue that is garnering a great deal of scrutiny by the federal government is participation in foreign talent programs, such as China’s Thousand Talents Program. Not only should participation in a foreign talent program be disclosed to federal sponsors and in the AU Employee COI Questionnaire, AU researchers should also reach out to their ADR to discuss such activity, even if they’ve previously disclosed their participation to other university officials. Depending on an individual’s research portfolio, he or she may be advised to terminate his or her affiliation with the foreign talent program.

Most federal sponsors will have their own guidance on how to complete “Other Support” forms. It is ultimately the responsibility of the individual researcher to ensure that the report of Other Support is complete and accurate to the best of their knowledge.

Again, PIs should review all pending proposals and active awards to ensure that all Other Support has been disclosed. If a PI identifies an omission or error in a previously submitted proposal or progress report, they should contact the Office of Sponsored Programs (ospadmn@auburn.edu) or appropriate college-level designee to have the error corrected.

  1. Biosketches should be current and thorough, review and update as necessary based on the information in this communication and the referenced resources, as well as the guidelines below:

 

  1. As you work on progress reports, always remember that you should indicate any change in support for Key Personnel that occurred over the last budget year. If you wish to make a change to your project that requires prior approval, the progress report is NOT the place to do that; prior to the report being submitted, a formal prior approval request should be to an agency via a request through OSP.
  1. Financial interests, including travel, must be disclosed in the AU COI System as required by AU’s Financial Conflict of Interest Policy for Research and Related Activities and general Conflict of Interests Policy.  This requirement to disclose includes financial interests received from any foreign entity including foreign institutions of higher education or the government of another country. If you are unsure whether a particular interest or remuneration should be disclosed, please contact the Manager for Research Integrity
  1. Disclose all foreign consulting and other outside business activities as required in Chapter 8 of the Faculty Handbook. A few common examples of outside business activities include consulting, teaching courses at outside organizations, or entrepreneurial ventures related to your area of research.  
  1. Guidance regarding foreign travel can be found here.
  1. Contact the Office of Information Technology regarding any compromised accounts or other IT threats.
  1. Promptly report inventions or intellectual property to the Office of Innovation Advancement and Commercialization.

It protects everyone’s interests – the Federal government, AU, individual researchers, and their international collaborators – to have international relationships disclosed and vetted to determine if there are any potential conflicts of commitment, duplications of research, and/or diversion of intellectual property in the performance of federally funded research.

Failure to disclose all relationships could result in the termination of funding for a project or potential ineligibility for future funding. In extreme cases, sanctions may include investigator fines and/or imprisonment.  Further, noncompliance can also threaten not only the funding for individual projects, but overall funding for the University and from federal appropriations as a whole.

 

Faculty members should be encouraged to contact their Associate Dean for Research for an initial discussion regarding any foreign affiliations related to their research efforts. Questions regarding individual grants and contracts can be directed to the Office of Sponsored Programs (ospadmn@auburn.edu). Questions related to AU FCOI Policy for Research and Related Activities can be directed to the Office of Research Compliance (research.integrity@auburn.edu). Specific questions regarding export compliance can be directed to the Office of Research Security Compliance.

Sources Updated on October 11, 2019

NIH/Senate Communications:

"Reminders of NIH Policies on Other Support and on Policies related to Financial Conflicts of Interest and Foreign Components:" https://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-19-114.html

NIH asks inspector general to investigate 12 allegations of foreign influence in U.S. research: https://www.statnews.com/2019/02/07/nih-inspector-general-allegations-fo...

March 30, 2018 Letter from NIH to research institutions regarding disclosure of foreign financial interests: https://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-18-160.html

Aug. 20, 2018 Letter from NIH to research institutions regarding increased disclosure: https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/NIH%20Foreign%20Influence%20Letter%20to%20Grantees%2008-20-18.pdf

Sen. Chuck Grassley’s letter to NIH, Oct. 24, 2018: https://www.grassley.senate.gov/news/news-releases/chairman-grassley-seeks-transparency-nih-foreign-threats-research-grant-process

NIH response letter to Sen. Grassley, Dec. 21, 2018: https://www.grassley.senate.gov/sites/default/files/constituents/FR01%20WF%20376670%20Final%20Response.signed_0.pdf

Sen. Grassley’s response letter to NIH, Jan. 8, 2019: https://www.grassley.senate.gov/news/news-releases/grassley-receives-response-nih-foreign-threats-research-grant-process

Senate Committee on Finance: "Grassley Probes Foreign Threats to Taxpayer-Funded Research at Defense Department," April 2, 2019: https://www.finance.senate.gov/chairmans-news/grassley-probes-foreign-th...

Senate Committee on Finance letter from Chuck Grassley to NSF Director France A. Córdova, April 15, 2019:  https://www.finance.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/2019-04-15%20CEG%20to%20NSF%20(research%20threats)1.pdf

Funding Agency Communications:

The National Science Foundation issued a statement on “Security and Science” dated October 23, 2018, stating that US universities must “embrace transparency and rigorously adhere to conflict of interest and conflict of commitment policies.”

June 7, 2019 DOE Directive regarding Foreign Government Talent Recruitment Programs: https://www.directives.doe.gov/directives-documents/400-series/0486-1-border/

The Department of Defense issued a letter to academic institutions on October 10, 2019.

Other Sources:

FBI Report on the risks to academia (PDF)

NIH presentation on Foreign Influences on Research Integrity (PDF): https://acd.od.nih.gov/documents/presentations/12132018ForeignInfluences...

NSF Statement on security and science dated Oct. 23, 2018: https://www.nsf.gov/nsb/publications/2018/NSB-2018-42-statement-on-secur...

NIH Definition of Foreign Component: https://grants.nih.gov/grants/glossary.htm#ForeignComponent

NIH Definition of Other Support: https://grants.nih.gov/grants/forms/othersupport.htm

NIH Application Instructions (Foreign Components mentioned on page 66): https://grants.nih.gov/grants/how-to-apply-application-guide/forms-e/general-forms-e.pdf

NIH Guidance on Investigator Disclosures of Foreign Financial Interest: https://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-18-160.html

H.R. 5515 Sec. 1286: National Defense Authorization Act's initiative to protect researchers from undue influence and security threats: https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/5515/text?utm_me...

OSTP Letter to the Research Community dated September 16, 2019: https://cws.auburn.edu/shared/files?id=159&filename=OSTP%20Letter%20to%20Community%20on%20JCORE%20Final%20Formatted.pdf

FAQs

No. The Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy have also issued statements regarding this issue. Given the current U.S. Government focus on this issue, we anticipate similar guidance, statements, or requirements will be forthcoming from other funding agencies.

Please see the Background section above for additional details.

In most cases, there is no reason to disclose participation of foreign students or postdocs on sponsored research, especially if all such work will be performed in the U.S. However, there may be other institutional disclosure requirements.  Classified and export controlled projects will be subject to foreign national restrictions. It may be possible to employ certain foreign nationals on controlled projects after appropriate licenses and/or exemptions are secured. Please contact AU’s Office of Research Security Compliance for more information on such cases. There are no foreign national restrictions on “Fundamental Research” projects. However, there may be cases where working with a student or postdoc might be considered a “foreign component,” if that student or postdoc is performing effort in a foreign country. NIH defines a foreign component as “any significant scientific element or segment of a project outside of the United States, either by the recipient or by a researcher employed by a foreign organization, whether or not grant funds are expended."

Yes – contact OSP at ospadmn@auburn.edu or the applicable college-level designee to have your application corrected.