ASBMB supports amnesty for academics to disclose foreign funding

Feb. 1, 2021

The following is a statement from Benjamin Corb, public affairs director for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology: 

“The ASBMB strongly encourages and supports the U.S. Department of Justice’s plans to develop an amnesty program for academics to disclose foreign funding without fear of repercussions. Enacting such a program would allow concerned scientists to ensure they are following federal and institutional policies and, if honest mistakes have been made, to correct errors to remain on the right side of the law. 

Providing this opportunity will help the scientific enterprise issues with foreign influence and financial misconduct, remove bad actors and help restore security for scientists conducting international collaboration. 

The DOJ’s actions in recent years, often in partnership with federal funding agencies, have helped create an atmosphere of fear for researchers, particularly those who collaborate with Chinese investigators. Adding to these concerns, federal funding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, could do more to help those in the research enterprise to understand the true scope of the problem and encourage scientists to be diligent with conflict of interest issues and reporting requirements.  

While it is imperative to protect taxpayer-funded research and investments, the DOJ’s efforts to crack down scientists working in the U.S. has had a detrimental impact on the American scientific enterprise. Numerous scientists, including Sherry Chen, Xiaoxing Xi, Guoqing Cao and Wei Su, have been accused of secretly collaborating with China only to have all charges against them dropped after prosecutors lacked sufficient evidence to prove that crimes had actually been committed. The mere accusations of wrongdoing, however, were enough to stunt research conducted by these scientists and in some instances jeopardize put their careers.  Furthermore, this pattern of charging scientists sends an alarming message to international scholars and students abroad.  

The scientific community needs clear, transparent guidance from both federal science agencies and grant-receiving institutions on how to handle international collaborations, evolving conflict-of-interest reporting requirements and federal investigations. Establishing an amnesty program would allow scientists to cooperate with federal law enforcement to ensure that genuine bad actors are held accountable for their actions without penalizing mere administrative errors and without damaging international science. 

We hope the Biden administration’s DOJ chooses to move forward with an amnesty program that will allow academics to disclose foreign funding that was initially and erroneously overlooked. This will prevent administrative errors from being criminalized in an attempt to tie economic espionage charges to federally funded scientists. We strongly urge DOJ officials to move forward with an amnesty program, which will protect both the American research enterprise and international collaboration.