Chris Fall is responsible for applying new rules to the Department of Energy’s 10 national laboratories.

Department of Energy

Department of Energy moves carefully on assessing foreign research collaborations

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has drawn up a list of technologies it may not want agency scientists to share with researchers from a handful of other countries. But that list has yet to be put to use, says Chris Fall, head of DOE’s Office of Science.

Appearing yesterday before the science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, Fall shed new light on how the 10 DOE national laboratories he oversees are trying to prevent foreign governments from taking advantage of the traditionally open U.S. scientific enterprise. DOE officials have spoken publicly before about creating a “technology risk matrix” to shape interactions with four countries—China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea—deemed to pose a threat to U.S. national security. But they have been cagey about how—or even whether—that matrix is being used.

It turns out that the tool is armed and ready for deployment, but DOE officials are weighing the potential impact on research before going live with it. For example, Fall says DOE doesn’t want to stunt U.S. innovation by simply banning all collaboration with China.

“We’re pausing a little bit, to think about what the effect might be,” Fall told legislators. “Because at the end of the day, I think we all understand that China is a scientific juggernaut, and that we’re not going to be able to just close the doors and shut the windows. We’re going to have to find a way to modify [China’s] behavior, and to work together on some things.”

Fall fleshed out his concerns in comments to Science after the hearing. For starters, DOE officials want to make sure that its actions are consistent with those of other federal research agencies, he explained. (The National Institutes of Health, for example, has been aggressive in pursuing cases in which it feels NIH-funded researchers have failed to disclose foreign ties or tried to tamper with the integrity of its system of awarding grants; more than a dozen researchers have been fired or resigned as a result of those investigations.)

“We don’t want to get too far ahead of everybody else,” Fall said. “So, we’re waiting for the interagency group [within the White House’s National Science and Technology Council] to figure out a broader range of mechanisms that should apply to the entire federal government.”

DOE also hasn’t decided how the risk matrix will be applied. “Right now, we understand that we have some technologies,” he says. “But we still need to decide if we are or are not worried if folks from sensitive countries are working with us on them. And whether it comes down to [restrictions on] individuals, or people with certain backgrounds, or particular institutes—we haven’t made those kinds of decisions yet.”

In the meantime, Fall says DOE doesn’t plan to make public its list of sensitive technologies.

“That would kind of defeat the purpose of trying to protect this stuff,” he says. “We want the folks who work in our laboratories to know what is sensitive. But we don’t necessarily want the world to know.”