Foreign Talent Recruitment Programs
Participation in some non-US government-sponsored talent recruitment programs, sometimes called talent programs, can involve risks that warrant consideration and mitigation. Congress, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other government organizations view certain aspects of talent programs as threats to the integrity and security of the national research enterprise.
Department of Justice PSA: Foreign Government-Sponsored Talent Recruitment Plans, such as China’s Talent Plans, Incentivize Economic Espionage and Theft of Trade Secrets
Talent Program Definition
The Joint Committee on the Research Environment of the National Science and Technology Council describes a foreign talent program as:
An effort directly or indirectly organized, managed, or funded by a foreign government, including state-owned enterprises, or a foreign institution to recruit science and technology professionals or students (regardless of citizenship or national origin, and whether having a full-time or part-time position).
Some of these programs encourage participants to facilitate the inappropriate or even illegal transfer of federally-funded research results and know-how to problematic destinations, contrary to the interests of the United States.
Characteristics of Problematic Talent Programs
Officials in federal science and law enforcement agencies have identified several red flags that frequently distinguish problematic talent program arrangements from legitimate activities:
- Explicit or implicit instructions to conceal talent program participation from officials with the researcher’s home university or the federal government
- Incentives to transfer sensitive or pre-publication technology outside the US
- Time commitment that is likely to result in undue conflicts with home university duties
- Incentives to establish or relocate laboratory operations in a non-US location
- Intellectual property terms that conflict with home university policies and expectations (especially regarding patent filings outside the US)
- Unusual obligations to publish in specific journals
- Incentives to transfer information likely to be confidential (e.g., grant applications or papers under peer review)
- Program goals contrary to those of the researcher’s home university or the federal government
- Obligation to hire or provide career advancement opportunities to other talent program participants
- Obligation to demonstrate loyalty to a non-US government
University’s & Federal Government Expectations
Disclosure and transparency are paramount. Personnel wishing to participate in talent programs must follow the University’s Conflict of Interest and Conflict of Commitment processes. The appropriate officials can help identify problematic talent program terms, and provide advice regarding the potential implications of talent program involvement for current and future research opportunities.
US government sponsors have generally come to view any talent program participation as an activity that must be disclosed in connection with federal research proposals and awards. Researchers in doubt should err on the side of transparency and report their involvement in talent programs as foreign support, in their biosketches, or otherwise in accordance with specific agency instructions. (For details, see SPA’s website) In general, federal authorities have pursued administrative and legal enforcement action against researchers in recent years not for mere involvement in talent programs, but rather for allegedly failing to disclose--or actively concealing--their participation.
Will participation in a foreign talent program impact the odds of my securing federal research support?
Participation in non-US talent programs might have an impact on certain federal sponsored research opportunities, depending in large part on specific agency rules and policies. Department of Energy policy (specifically, DoE Order 486.1A) is currently the strictest, generally prohibiting federal and contractor employees--including university personnel working on contracted research--from participating in certain foreign talent programs. The Department of Defense appears to be headed in a similar direction, although it has not formally banned participation as of mid-2021.
The National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, US Department of Agriculture, and most other federal sponsors have not formally stated that they view talent program participation by itself as an inherently problematic or disqualifying factor. This could change over time.
Questions About Foreign Talent Programs
Please contact the Export Controls Office with specific questions about foreign talent programs and related federal government concerns and expectations.
- Chinese Talent Program Tracker, Center for Security and Emerging Technology, Georgetown University, November 2020.
- Recommended Practices for Strengthening the Security and Integrity of America’s Science and Technology Research Enterprise, Joint Committee on the Research Environment, National Science and Technology Council, January 2021.
- Threats to the U.S. Research Enterprise: China’s Talent Recruitment Plans, US Senate, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, November 2019.
Representative List of Foreign Talent Programs
See a representative list of Non-Us Talent Programs. The list is not exhaustive as it is not feasible to identify all talent programs.