April 2024Vol.XXXVI No. 4

Discussing Research Security with Research Groups

Peter H. Fisher, Gregory Moffatt

The November 2022 report of the MIT China Strategy Group, co-chaired by Richard Lester and Lily Tsai, grappled with how the Institute can preserve its fundamental commitment to open scientific exchange and collaboration while taking fine-tuned steps to address known security risks and ethical risks. Titled University Engagement with China: An MIT Approach, the report also expressed principles applicable to MIT’s engagement with other countries. Its recommendations identified actions to mitigate the risk of harm to MIT research and researchers. For one, the report urged each principal investigator (PI) “to ensure that all group members understand the norms and expectations of the group.”

We have written this article to encourage all our PI colleagues at MIT to engage their research groups in a discussion of the group’s norms and expectations. These discussions are essential to promoting scientific exchange and collaboration while preserving research security. We provide a written resource to support such conversations later in this article.

When you welcome new students, postdocs, and staff to your research group, what topics are part of their orientation? At group meetings, you might periodically discuss your expectations regarding lab notebooks, proper care of equipment, and other housekeeping matters. Do your advisees also know how to protect data when discussing their work at MIT with friends or when traveling overseas? Do you expect early results to be shared in preprints or tightly held to preserve their commercialization prospects? Have you made clear the requirements to appear as a co-author on a paper from your group? Do members of your research group fully understand your expectations about initiating new collaborations or when it’s appropriate to share information, samples, or equipment outside the group?

The research group constitutes the fundamental unit of research at a university, and the group meeting presents the best environment for discussing norms and expectations. We suggest raising these topics routinely and discussing them openly. When such conversations are held in the candor of the research group or between mentor and advisees, they can dispel fear and enable work to proceed with clarity and confidence.

An ounce of prevention

PIs are central to the research enterprise, set the group’s tone, and establish the norms and expectations of the group. As the Strategy Group noted, PIs’ broad influence – as scholars, leaders, innovators, teachers, mentors, and ambassadors – is the same characteristic that “places them most at risk of foreign interference or influence as well as U.S. government investigation” and most vulnerable to harm resulting from errors in the research group. In the current policy environment, the consequences for the PI could include setbacks to the research program, reputational damage, or loss of funding. The PI’s “role in risk assessment and management,” the report therefore said, “is central.”

Where to begin? A new resource

We have created a resource to support PIs in broaching the subject of research security with their research groups and advisees. Framed as a discussion guide, designed to be locally adaptable, and written with direct input by faculty at each of the Schools and the College, it suggests an approach to outlining fundamental principles and policies that apply to every individual and unit engaging in research at MIT. Some PIs may find the guide provides a structure for a dedicated information session with their research group or that single topics could be incorporated into regular lab meetings.

Proactive discussion is the key to communicating the PI’s expectations.

The four-page guide does not attempt to capture much complexity – there is no lengthy detail on export control regulations, for example, nor sponsor-by-sponsor requirements on conflict of interest. However, it points to resources for further guidance. By fostering candid discussion within your group, you will bring important questions and unchallenged assumptions to light. For further support on these topics, we invite you to contact MIT Research Compliance in the Office of the Vice President for Research at research-compliance-help@mit.edu.

With other colleagues working to implement the recommendations of the MIT China Strategy Group, we are speaking at School council meetings this spring about the discussion guide and more. We welcome your feedback.