Sapna Marwaha is the founder of Formation Consultancy and deputy chair of the Association of Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA)

A growing regulatory burden coupled with growing financial instability makes a challenging environment for research security best practice to evolve.

There are inevitable pressures for efficiency, and the agendas impacting the sector find themselves competing instead of complementing one another.

The constant push to do more with less can often drive policy and processes away from an “actor-agnostic” approach – in which security risk considerations and processes apply equally across research partnerships – and towards an “actor-specific” approach, where nations and nationality are used as a shorthand for determining risk levels. The second approach may enable teams to focus their attentions on states of concern – but there are clear risks of unintended consequences, and questions about equity and fairness.

The recent shifts in US research security policy relating to China are a clear example of this. And this challenging period explains why it is now much more common to hear research management colleagues from across the pond reflect on equity, diversity and inclusion principles in their approach to research security. They have become more familiar with the risks of pursuing research security in the absence of equity, diversity and inclusion. These are not risks we can afford to ignore in the UK if we want to continue to preserve and build a positive research culture.

Unintended consequences

The pointedly titled China Initiative was launched by the US Department of Justice in 2018. While the Trump and Biden administrations both agree on the importance of research security, the change in administration brought a shift in approach and ultimately, the end of the initiative in 2022, as the US grappled with the unintended consequences.

The primary aim was to address Chinese economic espionage and intellectual property theft in the United States. The FBI led many investigations which led to a relatively low level of successful prosecutions – and significant damage to the relationship between the government and academic community.

Chinese American advocacy group the Committee of 100 wrote to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to highlight its concerns with the measures, arguing that “an unbalanced government effort in the name of research integrity and national security is leading to the unjustified targeting of scholars who are ethnic Chinese and the discouragement of international talent from coming to study and work in the United States” and noting a “chilling effect on federally funded research”.

These assertions were supported by a study by the National Academy of Sciences which found “widespread fear among scientists of Chinese descent” with nearly a third of the 1,305 respondents now feeling unwelcome and unsafe in the US academic environment. An analysis of the institutional affiliations on over 200 million scientific papers found that Chinese American scientists have been returning to China in large numbers. There is a clear risk that some of the talented individuals whose research the US was seeking to protect have instead opted to take their knowledge and expertise out of the country for fear of being misunderstood and mistreated.

Learning the lessons

Other territories have actively sought to avoid these issues by adopting an actor agnostic approach and embedding EDI into their frameworks. The Canadian government’s guidance explicitly states that its “approach to furthering innovation and safeguarding research follows the principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI)” and “acknowledges that threats can come from any country and has adopted a country-agnostic approach”.

Ann Fong, Head of the Office of Research Services at Canada’s particle accelerator centre TRIUMF, told me that “Canada has undoubtedly been affected by what has happened in the US” – whether it is federal staff who are always keen to emphasise their country-agnostic approach or universities who are trying hard to apply an EDI lens to their processes.

Ann cautioned against giving priority to any nationality, and emphasised that her organisation’s processes have been designed with a technology-first approach, where individuals of all nationalities will be subject to additional checks where a research area has been identified as sensitive.

In the EU, a recently adopted recommendation to enhance research security sets a similar course:

While pursuing a risk-based approach, [the EU should] adopt policies that are country-agnostic, identifying and addressing risks to research security wherever they emanate from [and] ensure that every effort is made to avoid all forms of discrimination and stigmatisation, direct as well as indirect, that could occur as unintended side-effects of safeguarding measures and ensure full respect of fundamental rights and shared values.

The UK approach

In the UK, we do not find the same references to equity, diversity and inclusion in high level guidance. This inevitably means that there is less consistency in where institutions consider these factors within their internal policies and practice. One organisation that has considered the need for balance and safeguards is the Royal Academy of Engineering, whose guidance states as follows:

The Academy is committed to playing a progressive leadership role in all aspects of diversity and inclusion within engineering and technology. We therefore strongly reject any behaviours that use national security concerns as an excuse for prejudice or hostility towards UK researchers of a particular ethnicity or nationality, or similar non-inclusive behaviour.

But this is far from the norm.

Tom Morgan, a senior associate at law firm CMS Cameron McKenna, told me that “not only is there the risk that actor-specific approaches carry a higher risk of discrimination, they also carry a higher risk of non-compliance and compromising research security.”

We know that state actors do not act exclusively through their own citizens. Connections to state actors remain a relevant consideration when evaluating new collaborations but connections are more complicated than just nationality. Yet nationality is already used as a shorthand within the UK system.

The Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS) requires non-UK citizens from certain countries to apply for enhanced checks when participating in research. The primary criteria are nationality and participation in research.

Concerns of racial profiling have already been raised. For instance, ARMA’s Complex Collaborations report from last year features a case study where a funded research project received three rejections from ATAS, each relating to members of staff of the same nationality at different institutions. Without any information on the reasons for each rejection, fears of racial profiling surfaced. Universities themselves are also no strangers to allegations of institutional racism and racial profiling. Mitigating the risks of discrimination and alienation requires thoughtful leadership and engagement with both communities and experts.

In 2023, 32 per cent of all academic staff at UK universities were international staff. International staff make a significant contribution to the research output of the UK. Continuing to recruit, retain and nurture that talent is a crucial component of the UK achieving its ambitions as a science superpower. The actor-agnostic approach in the UK has often been the subject of debate, with many feeling that managing risk would be more straightforward if the UK government were more explicit and transparent about hostile actors and states of concern. Yet the experience in the USA would suggest that an “actor-aware” approach is preferable to an actor-specific one.

This year sees the launch of the Foreign Influence Registration Scheme which is set to expand actor-specific measures within the UK. The scheme allows the government to specify a foreign power, part of a foreign power, or an entity subject to foreign power control, where it is considered necessary to protect the safety or interests of the UK. It further shifts the UK along the spectrum from actor-agnostic to actor-specific. It’s yet to be seen if research organisations and regulators will complement this shift with greater safeguarding of equality and human rights.

Looking forward

ARMA’s Complex Collaborations report highlighted the scale of advocacy needed for research management teams to embed research security processes and procedures in their institutions. Andrew Clark, Executive Director of Programmes for the Royal Academy of Engineering, summed the debate up neatly to me:

We can’t effectively discuss research security without connecting it to inclusion. The tolerant, respectful, and inclusive nature of UK society is one of the things we are trying to protect. UK researchers will rightly resist any research security practices they see as not embodying our national values.

Without careful consideration of how we achieve the objectives of research security in a way consistent with our values, there is a risk that resistance will heighten in the face of increasing regulation, and levels of compliance will fall.

The research security space is full of tensions between competing risks, rights and ambitions that need to be balanced. Government agendas like immigration, sector diversity and science superpower status send mixed messages.

In the US, a change in government brought a rebalancing in approach. The UK is expected to see a similar shift in its own government this year, creating the opportunity for reforming the competing agendas impacting the sector. The research ecosystem requires a holistic approach, and we cannot protect the assets it creates without also protecting the people and culture around it.

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