U.S. science groups wary of new Senate bills to curb foreign influences

U.S. science groups wary of new Senate bills to curb foreign influences

Senator Rob Portman (R–OH) has assembled a bipartisan coalition for his bill targeting foreign influences.

Senate Television via AP

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators today proposed sweeping—and controversial—changes in how the federal government manages academic research in the face of threats from other countries.

The authors of the legislation, more than 1 year in the making, tout it as a way to stop China and other countries from stealing the fruits of federally funded research and using the information to damage U.S. economic and national security. But research advocates worry that if enacted, the bill could damage the U.S. academic research enterprise by restricting the flow of talent and ideas.

The legislation, which was drafted by Senators Rob Portman (R–OH) and Tom Carper (D–DE) and has eight Republican and five Democratic co-sponsors, is the latest, and most substantive, attempt in Congress to reconcile these competing interests. It would make a number of subtle but potentially significant changes in how the U.S. government keeps tabs on those who receive federal grants, who gets to enter the country to carry out research deemed sensitive to national interests, and how U.S. scientists interact with foreign partners.

One contentious provision would give the Department of State grounds to reject a visa application from anyone with ties to a foreign government seen as hostile to the United States. Other sections of the bill would expose scientists who fail to disclose ties to a foreign government to criminal penalties including jail time, require international partners to embrace U.S. scientific norms, and give the White House budget office new powers to oversee research security.

The legislators backing the bill say they recognize the need to strike a balance. But their rhetoric is anything but subtle. “For nearly 2 decades, the federal government has been asleep at the wheel while foreign governments have exploited the lack of transparency in our education system and bought access and influence on our school campuses,” says Portman, who leads the homeland security committee’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), which has sharply criticized current federal efforts to tackle the problem.

Nor do the lawmakers hide their intended target. “America’s research enterprise is the best in the world and the Chinese Communist Party knows it,” says Senator Josh Hawley (R–MO). “That’s why they’ve spent the last 20 years stealing American taxpayer-funded intellectual property.”

Carper, the top Democrat on the panel, is a bit more judicious in his language, describing “the ways in which the Chinese government has worked to exploit the open and collaborative nature of the U.S. research community to advance their businesses and military interests.” He calls the bill a “common sense [approach] to protect American intellectual property and better leverage our international research partnerships.”

Unease among science groups

Science advocates acknowledge the need to protect U.S. interests, but they believe Portman’s bill goes too far in how it would police the research enterprise. “I don’t think the higher education community is going to like any of this,” says one science lobbyist, who like many advocates requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak for their organization.

The Association of American Universities, a 66-member coalition of leading research institutions, said in a statement that it “shares Senators Portman and Carper’s goal of securing research conducted on our campuses, and universities are taking specific steps to address security concerns,” but “key provisions in the bill are overly broad and will only serve to harm American science without improving national security. … We appreciate that Sens. Portman and Carper have changed language in certain sections of the bill in response to concerns raised by our universities, but the breadth of the current bill language could still block talented students and scholars from coming to the U.S., where they advance our science and economic interests.”

One big sticking point is language giving the State Department the ability to reject a visa application from anyone based on their “cooperation with … military organizations adversarial to the United States, foreign institutions involved in the theft of United States research [or] a government that seeks to undermine the integrity and security of the United States research community.” Although the bill doesn’t name China, Portman and many other legislators believe its growth as a scientific superpower has been fueled by the widespread use of such tactics.

Lobbyists worry that, depending on how it is interpreted, the language has the potential to slam the door on the thousands of Chinese graduate students and postdocs who seek to study in the United States each year. The provision puts “no guard rails” on the State Department’s power, one lobbyist worries. “Every Chinese student has a direct connection to the government” and so could be viewed as persona non grata. The State Department already has criteria in place to exclude high-risk foreign applicants, the critics add, so it’s not clear why it needs broader powers.

PSI staffers say those fears are not warranted. They say the legislation gives the State Department authority it now lacks and has requested, to consider such factors as a visa applicant’s ties to military groups. Such ties are currently insufficient to exclude an applicant, they say. Instead, the bill would direct the State Department to “weigh the proportionality of risk” before deciding whether to issue a visa.

“The focus of the bill is on bad actors,” a staffer notes. “The vast majority of foreign researchers [asking to come to the United States] are benign, and we need their talents.”

The bill would also empower the State Department to reject or restrict the activities of a visa applicant if officials decide it would harm the country to give them access to “goods, technologies, or sensitive information.” The United States already has extensive rules governing the sharing and export of research products deemed sensitive. But lobbyists worry government officials could use the new provision to require universities to impose arbitrary restrictions on who could attend an open lecture, for example, or who could visit a laboratory that is doing unclassified research. “It violates the culture of openness that is fundamental to academic research,” one says.

PSI staffers believe the community is overreacting to what is simply a common-sense approach to research security in today’s globally competitive environment. “We’re not locking down campuses,” one says. But universities and other federally funded institutions “don’t need to give everyone access to everything.”

Using the budget hammer

The legislation would also lower the profile of an existing high-level intergovernmental panel that is tackling many of these issues. That panel, the Joint Committee on Research Environment (JCORE), was created last year by Kelvin Droegemeier, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), to examine issues ranging from foreign influences to sexual harassment.

Its first product, expected out later this summer, is expected to be a proposed common federal policy relating to disclosing foreign sources of support. Nearly a score of research agencies has been working on the document. (Portman’s bill would criminalize the failure to disclose such ties, and would ban violators from receiving a federal grant for 5 years.)

The bill would make JCORE a working group of a new body, called the Federal Research Security Council, which would be led by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Lobbyists question giving that role to OMB. They say OMB has neither OSTP’s understanding of the research enterprise nor its strong connections to the scientific community. And they worry OMB’s purview is so broad that research could get lost among its many priorities.

PSI staffers say OMB’s clout is exactly why it was put in the driver’s seat. “We think that OSTP has been doing a great job. And giving OMB these powers is a good way to supercharge that effort,” one staffer says. As one example, staffer cite the role OMB could play in implementing the bill’s requirement that research agencies use a common grant application. “If one agency argues that it has unique needs, then OMB has the ability to step in and insist that it make concessions to reach an agreement.” OSTP, they suggest, couldn’t knock heads in the same way.

Gifts in the spotlight

Higher education organizations are also unhappy with a provision that lowers the requirement for reporting gifts, including grants, from another government or any foreign entity. The current standard is $250,000, and in the past year, the Department of Education has conducted investigations of several major universities that it says have ignored the rule. Universities say the government has never spelled out what it expects from institutions.

Portman’s bill throws gasoline on the simmering dispute by reducing the threshold to $50,000. University officials say the smaller amount negates the original purpose of the rule, which was designed to monitor attempts by foreign governments to influence such core academic activities as course offerings or the direction of faculty research.

“$50,000 is not enough to influence anything,” one official says. “And the additional reporting that would be required represents a significant administrative burden.”

Portman dismisses that criticism and doesn’t see the need to compromise. “There’s some in the university community that don’t love our legislation,” he said last month in a floor speech that outlined his pending bill. “I would just ask them, given what we know is happening in terms of the theft of U.S. research, are you really going to stand in the way of legislation that just says you have to report when you receive more than $50,000 from a foreign government? Is that too much to ask? I don’t think so.”

Whose values?

Another potential bone of contention for researchers is a provision that would require all U.S. international agreements to contain language requiring foreign partners “to adhere to U.S. scientific values.” On the surface, those values appear noncontroversial; they include “transparency, reciprocity, integrity, and merit-based competition.”

“If we expect U.S. federally funded researchers to be transparent, ensure the integrity of their work, make their work available to others to confirm, compete based on the merit of their work and not their seniority or rank, and share information with the scientific community, then we should hold U.S. federally funded projects involving foreign counterparts to the same standard,” a PSI staffer says. 

But those principles are more nuanced than they appear, one lobbyist notes. For example, not every U.S agency uses “merit-based competition” for all grantmaking. Beyond that detail, the lobbyist notes, the attempt to require another country to follow U.S. “values” before partnering with U.S. scientists could be problematic for researchers overseas.

This and other sections of the original bill relating to international agreements were removed at the last minute and introduced as separate legislation. The move was taken to align the bills with the oversight authority of individual Senate committees. The main bill will be taken up by the homeland security panel that Portman chairs. The second piece goes before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

So far there is no companion bill in the House of Representatives, although some members have introduced narrower measures aimed at curbing foreign influences on federally funded research. Congress watchers say such sweeping legislation would be harder to pass in the House because of jurisdictional issues as well as greater skepticism among its Democratic leaders that the problem warrants wholesale changes in federal oversight of research.

Leave a Reply