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Openness, Security, and APS Activities to Help Maintain the Balance

In this special APS News Back Page commentary, the APS Presidential Line highlights the steps being taken by the Society to maintain the balance between international collaboration and national security.

July 26, 2019 | APS Presidential Line: David Gross (President), Roger Falcone (Past-President), Philip H. Bucksbaum (President-Elect), S. James Gates Jr. (Vice President)

The success of the scientific enterprise of any nation requires maintaining a balance between being openly collaborative and securely competitive. Recently, in the United States, the current balance has been questioned by policymakers and by law enforcement and intelligence officials who are concerned about espionage and intellectual property loss impacting universities, companies, and government agencies. Many APS members, particularly those on visas studying or working in the United States, are likely concerned about various actions of U.S. government agencies that can affect the openness of the scientific enterprise.

APS stands for the principle that the scientific enterprise thrives when openness and the free flow of long-term research results are the norm. Of course, we understand that in some areas of research it is essential to have appropriate controls in place. Many APS members are employed by national labs that work on highly sensitive issues that require the utmost attention to security and necessitate a classified environment. Other APS members work in industries or academic settings where they must be protective of intellectual property (IP). The urgent question we face is whether the actions taken or being proposed by the U.S. Government are an appropriate response to risks or are instead tilting away from a healthy balance.

We outline below our vigorous efforts to maintain the appropriate balance and support our members.

Clarifying the Problem

In February, the APS Presidential line, working with the APS Office of Government Affairs (OGA) and the APS Physics Policy Committee, received unclassified briefings from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

David Gross

David Gross

Roger Falcone

Roger Falcone

Philip Bucksbaum

Philip H. Bucksbaum

Sylvester James Gates, Jr.

Sylvester James Gates, Jr.
Vice President

In addition, we have met with relevant leadership at the U.S. State Department, the Commerce Department, the Department of Defense, the White House National Security Council, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. We have also discussed the issue and potential responses with science agencies including the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy.

What did we learn?

While we have not been presented with any hard data regarding the breadth or impact of possible espionage, in our view the discussions offered compelling anecdotal evidence of cases that have impacted industry, classified research, and applied research. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has documented some of the cases in a publicly accessible document titled "China: The Risk to Academia".

However, that FBI document does not provide cases of threats relating to unclassified basic research in academia. Further, the “annual cost to the U.S. economy” it identifies as “$225 - $600 Billion” turns out to be primarily based on a generic GDP multiplier that would apply to any country at any time – it has no specific bearing on current circumstances with China or academia, as the title of the document unfortunately suggests.

The Response of Federal Science Agencies

Independent reviews of the risks by the U.S. science agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Science Foundation, have uncovered issues that need to be addressed. These include intentional non-disclosure by principal investigators of financial ties, theft of experimental designs, unauthorized distribution of papers that have been provided for peer review, and establishment of “shadow labs” without full declaration by the researchers to their host institution. These cases have been primarily associated with China, suggesting a deliberate focus by—or on—China.

The NSF has not yet imposed new or revised external policies. Instead, their first step is to ask all principal investigators for more detailed information to uncover any conflicts of interest. The next step the agency is taking is to contract with an independent group of security experts (the JASONs) to assess the risks of espionage and IP theft and the benefits of international collaboration. That information will help inform any future policy change.

For its part, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has identified seven “activities of concern” including: theft of proprietary or patented information, unauthorized access to export-controlled technology, misuse of lab resources for foreign projects, unauthorized transfer of information outside the U.S., misuse of information technology, failure to uphold host responsibilities, and recruitment activities.

DOE’s response thus far has focused on responding to recruitment activities. The agency has issued a new policy that employees of the national labs cannot participate in a foreign “talent program”. This policy, as described by the Undersecretary for Science Paul Dabbar, “…has nothing to do with ethnicity or passport; it’s simply that you can’t work for our country and another country at the same time, no matter who you are.”

In addition to that policy, the DOE is developing a “risk matrix”—emerging technologies vs. countries of concern—with policy responses to follow. The emerging technologies include: AI, battery materials, biotechnology, quantum information science, accelerator science, and high performance computing. The countries of concern include: China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran.

DOE has stated that any policy changes will be initiated at the national labs. Only after evaluation, and consultation with universities, would the agency apply those policies to grantees in academia.

The APS Response: Espionage

We will continue to have meetings with government officials to discuss any proposed policy responses and we’ll continue to make the case that security concerns must be balanced against the value of keeping the scientific enterprise open and collaborative. In addition, we and APS OGA, and the APS Office of International Affairs, have also been carrying out numerous additional activities in response to the concerns about espionage and IP theft:

NAS Roundtable
It is essential for the Administration and the science agencies to develop informed policies, using adequate data that appropriately characterize the threat, identify the benefits of any response, and assess the impact of any response to a potential threat. To that end, last November, we began meeting with leadership of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to establish a roundtable of experts to assess risks, identify benefits, and examine potential policy responses.

APS contributed to the work of congressional staff on the House Science Committee to develop the bipartisan Securing American Science and Technology Act of 2019 (SASTA link). It establishes an interagency working group to coordinate activities to protect federally funded research and development from foreign interference such as espionage while “accounting for the importance of the open exchange of ideas and international talent required for scientific progress and American leadership in science and technology.” It also formally authorizes the establishment of the aforementioned NAS Roundtable. In late June, SASTA was included as an amendment in the House version of the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.

Engagement with Chinese physicists
As a means to maintain and advance a common understanding of the balance between collaboration and security, we believe it is valuable for the U.S. physics community to sustain a dialogue with physicists in China. And so, we are exploring ways to convene a representative body of our respective leadership and members to engage in conversation.

The APS Response: Scientific Mobility

Amid the discussion of espionage and IP theft and the policy responses directed at China, we have grown increasingly concerned about the declining number of applications from international students to U.S, Ph.D. programs. A 2018 APS survey of 49 of the largest physics Ph.D. programs at U.S. institutions revealed an average decline of nearly 12 percent in international applications between 2017 and 2018 (see APS News story). The concerns of espionage, and the current atmosphere around discussions of immigration, may only exacerbate that decline.

A top priority for APS is ensuring that the U.S. research enterprise remains world leading. One measure of that is ensuring that domestic students pursue careers in physics—and APS has established education programs to directly address that challenge. In addition, we also want to be sure that U.S. universities continue to attract the best students in the world, regardless of their country of origin. So, to track and respond to the decline in applications, APS has responded in several ways:

Senate Legislation
To help counter the decline in international applications to U.S. Ph.D. programs, APS has advocated for policies that allow international students to remain in the United States after graduation, and build a STEM career that contributes to the U.S. science enterprise. To advance that policy in Congress, APS worked with its members in target states and enabled in-state meetings for APS members and congressional staff. That effort led directly to the introduction of legislation that would enact the policy, the “Keep STEM Talent Act” (see bill).

House Resolution
It became clear in our conversations with staff in the Administration and numerous congressional offices, that there was a lack of awareness of the role that international scientists play in the U.S. scientific enterprise. With concerns over espionage and IP theft, some staff simply thought that banning foreign students from entering the U.S. could “solve the problem.” To counter that misperception in a format that government staff are familiar with, APS is working with congressional staff to develop a Congressional Resolution that clarifies and quantifies the essential contribution of international students and scientists.

Survey of International Students
To explore additional ways to resolve and address the decline in applications, APS deployed an additional survey. Circulated to members of the APS Forum on Graduate Affairs (FGSA), the survey asks students about their experiences with U.S. visa and immigration processes. This is the first time a wide-spread, systematic approach has been taken to understand visa issues encountered by physics students that wish to study in the U.S.

Monitoring of Travel Visas
APS will continue to provide visa application guidance and information through its Office of International Affairs - Visa website, to enable scientists to engage in international meetings and collaborations. Here, visitors can learn about the visa application process, estimate wait times for visa interviews and processing, and find out how to report delayed application. Likewise, meeting organizers can learn how to register international meetings with the U.S. Department of State, along with the crucial information to provide to international meeting attendees.


In its briefing to us, the FBI compared the danger posed by Chinese scientists working in U.S. research groups to cancer, which remains invisible only to manifest itself many years after the initial DNA damage occurs. We note that an overactive immune response to cancer leads to autoimmune disease, which is potentially even more deadly. An over-reaction to security risks can endanger U.S. physics, which relies upon international participation in research. Every country must evaluate the policies necessary for being internationally collaborative and globally competitive. For its part, APS will continue to engage vigorously in discussion with policymakers to help ensure a healthy balance between security concerns, openness, and the essential contribution international scientists make to the U.S. research enterprise.

David Gross is Chancellor’s Chair Professor of Theoretical Physics and former Director of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at UCSB. Roger Falcone is Professor of Physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Philip H. Bucksbaum holds the Marguerite Blake Wilbur Chair in Natural Science at Stanford University, with appointments in Physics, Applied Physics, and in Photon Science at SLAC. S. James Gates, Jr. is Ford Foundation Physics Professor and Affiliate Mathematics Professor at Brown University.

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