Jun. 6, 2022

 

Foreign influence is gaining awareness across academic and research institutions in the United States and UNLV is taking steps to educate faculty about their responsibilities in reporting potential conflicts.

In 2017 the U.S. Government raised concerns about foreign threats to the integrity of research specifically in the university sector.

In an August 2018 letter, Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), outlined what is being done by the nation’s medical research agency. 

“NIH is working with other government agencies and the broader biomedical research community, including NIH-funded institutions and U.S. university professional organizations, to identify steps that can help mitigate these unacceptable breaches of trust and confidentiality that undermine the integrity of U.S. biomedical research.”

In taking these warnings into account, UNLV began talks to create a campus-wide task force to discuss, develop, and implement strategies to better coordinate and address concerns regarding undue foreign influence. The rational for the task force was focused around three primary areas of concern:

  • Intellectual property theft/academic espionage;
  • Sharing of confidential information by peer reviewers with foreign entities or attempting to influence funding decisions; and
  • Ensuring adequate disclosure of resource contributions from other organizations, including foreign governments.

In 2021, the UNLV Foreign Influence Task Force was put into place and co-chaired by Brad Woods, Executive Director of the Office of Research Integrity, and Janet Dufek, Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs. The Task Force was charged with developing policies and outlining best practices at UNLV to ensure prevention of actions or activities by foreign governments or other entities who attempt to exert undue foreign influence and undermine the principles of academic freedom.

“It is so important for our faculty to learn about and understand their responsibilities regarding Foreign Influence,” says Vice Provost Dufek.  “To this point, a quick and easy online training is already available to them. I strongly encourage all research faculty to complete this quick, four-module online training that is already available, via the Office of the Vice President for Research.”

Dr. Dufek stresses the training allows faculty the opportunity to learn more about the breadth and depth of foreign influence, as well as how to identify and mitigate risk.

“Undue Foreign Influence: Risks and Mitigations” consists of four modules and can be found at https://about.citiprogram.org/course/undue-foreign-influence-risks-and-mitigations/.  

The specific modules are:

  • Introduction to Undue Foreign Influence Impacts and Concerns in Academia
  • Reporting, Research Integrity, and Effective Practices to Manage Undue Foreign Influence Risk
  • Cybersecurity and Compliance Considerations for Safeguarding Research,
  • Nondiscrimination Considerations When Managing Undue Foreign Influence.

In addition to the online learning series, UNLV researchers are asked to answer these three key Foreign Influence questions for the annual Conflict of Interest (COI) survey jointly administered by the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) and the Office of Faculty Affairs.  

  1. Did you receive any compensation or any other benefit (including sponsored travel and honoraria) from a foreign institution of higher education, a foreign research institute, a foreign academic teaching hospital or medical center, or the government of a foreign country? If yes, please list the entity name, country, type and amount of compensation, amount of sponsored travel, and nature of services rendered.
  2. As part of your institutional responsibilities, do you interact with foreign government officials or foreign political parties in order to obtain or retain a UNLV business relationship?  
  3. Are you a member of a foreign talent program?

Co-Chair Brad Woods says the information collected from these questions is designed to safeguard the research community and assist the university in screening for potential foreign threats that may undermine the integrity of research.

“The annual COI disclosure was updated to reflect growing concerns of undue foreign influence. As a way to assist faculty in avoiding questionable collaborations or untrustworthy sponsors, UNLV is using this as a mechanism to screen against known foreign threats.”

Because the broad nature of concerns related to undue foreign influence extend well beyond the purview of the Division of Research, the Foreign Influence Task Force was composed of numerous members of the campus community representing various campus interests and offices.

The task force has provided recommendations, based upon best practices, to campus leaders where implementation policies can be developed and the next steps decided.