A bipartisan group of House lawmakers is pushing a new effort to prevent taxpayer dollars from going to researchers allegedly compromised by China.
The House Science, Space and Technology Committee advanced a bill Tuesday that lawmakers amended to prohibit researchers from getting National Science Foundation (NSF) grants if they have participated in malign foreign talent programs, such as China’s Thousand Talents Plan.
Foreign adversaries like China use talent recruitment programs to incentivize and influence U.S. government-funded researchers to act in the adversaries’ interest.
Rep. Randy Feenstra, Iowa Republican, introduced the amendment to the National Science Foundation for the Future Act that would ban NSF money for researchers who have participated in such talent programs or received a benefit in exchange for transferring knowledge and expertise to China and other countries of concern, including Iran, North Korea and Russia.
“For years, Congress, federal research agencies, the national security agencies, and universities have been working to root out malign foreign talent recruitment. The time has come to simply prohibit them from receiving U.S. taxpayer dollars,” Mr. Feenstra said at Tuesday’s hearing. “The Chinese government knows that economic strength and scientific innovation are keys to global influence and military power so the Chinese Communist Party aims to acquire our early-stage research and expertise to erode our competitive advantage.”
Mr. Feenstra’s amendment passed by a voice vote without opposition and earned the praise of the committee’s Democratic chair, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas.
“We all understand that the risks are real, we also understand the need for science to remain open and collaborative, and we have a deep appreciation for the contributions that foreign scholars have and will continue to make to U.S. science and innovation,” said Ms. Johnson. “We must keep our doors open to global talent if we are to remain competitive. I believe this amendment was carefully developed to balance those risks and benefits, so I support this amendment.”
The bipartisan agreement in the House committee hearing was much different than the Senate’s recent squabble over how to protect research dollars from Chinese influence.
The Senate voted last week to authorize about $250 billion for research and development to counter China in the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, following lawmakers haggling over which agencies could best use and better protect the taxpayer funds.
Some Republican senators raised objections that NSF could not adequately protect its taxpayer funds, although NSF previously insisted that it has taken steps in recent months to better protect its research.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, tried and failed to amend the Senate’s bill to create a counterintelligence screening and certification process for the new research spending. He opposed the bill’s final passage and said the Senate would feel “pretty stupid” next year if it discovers China has stolen the intellectual property created through the legislation.
The House has pursued a more piecemeal approach to new taxpayer spending on research, and House Republicans are looking to expand their effort to blockade federal funds from potentially compromised scientists to every federal agency.
Rep. Michael Waltz, Florida Republican, said at Tuesday’s hearing that he viewed the National Science Foundation-related restriction as a placeholder for what should be a government-wide rule that gets implemented through the next National Defense Authorization Act.
The science foundation is not the only research agency challenged with potentially compromised researchers and scientists participating in their work. The National Institutes of Health told Congress in April that more than 500 federally funded scientists were under investigation for being compromised by China and other foreign powers.
The FBI opens a new China-related counterintelligence case “about every 10 hours,” said FBI Director Christopher A. Wray last year.
As they look to develop solutions to secure American innovation, House lawmakers were careful to stress that they did not want to restrict collaboration and innovation. The new restriction advanced by House lawmakers does not prevent U.S. government-funded scientists from participating in international conferences, exchanges, or various other partnerships or programs, according to the text of the amendment reviewed by The Washington Times.
The NSF also has said it has taken steps to separate federal funds from researchers that have participated in foreign talent programs.
An NSF spokesperson said last month that the foundation was prohibiting employees from participating in foreign talent recruitment programs.