Republican lawmakers pushing to keep tax dollars intended for scientists out of the hands of the Chinese government have taken their fight to the public.
As the Senate debated what had been a bipartisan proposal by Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer to send billions to the National Science Foundation, Republicans balked, saying the agency cannot be trusted to safeguard government-funded research that in the past has been routinely compromised by China.
Mr. Schumer’s Endless Frontier Act that would route $100 billion to NSF had seven original Democratic co-sponsors and seven Republican co-sponsors, including Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio. But Mr. Portman said on Wednesday that he had reservations about continuing to support the bill because NSF “does very little to protect its research” from China.
“They have no dedicated compliance officers, they depend on the [inspector general] to find grant fraud,” he said at a committee meeting. “It doesn’t prevent researchers it funds from participating in talent recruitment plans like the Thousand Talents Plan. More concerning, the head of NSF’s office of international science and engineering testified before a subcommittee that she had only recently heard about the Thousand Talents Plan despite it being around for two decades.”
The Thousand Talents Plan is a Chinese government program. Talent recruitment programs targeting American innovation are one tool that foreign adversaries like China use to influence U.S. government-funded researchers.
Last month, the Justice Department charged an NSF-funded researcher with wire fraud. The U.S. government alleged that math professor and university researcher Mingqing Xiao hid his Chinese-government funding while also getting funding from NSF.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and ranking member on the Intelligence Committee, also sounded the alarm about the NSF and he proposed routing the billions of taxpayer dollars in the Endless Frontier Act elsewhere.
“Right now that bill makes the National Science Foundation the lead agency in directing $100 billion dollars of government investment. The problem is that’s the same agency that time and again has had the research we fund stolen by professors and graduate students who are on the payroll for China,” Mr. Rubio said on the Senate floor Tuesday. He said the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and “other advanced research agencies within the government have a better record of protecting research, and I believe are a far better choice to administer these investments instead.”
A DARPA spokesperson said the agency had no contact with Mr. Rubio’s office on the proposal.
An NSF spokesperson declined to comment on pending legislation but said the foundation takes research security seriously and created a chief of research security, strategy and policy position last March. NSF prohibits its “employees and rotators” from participating in foreign talent recruitment programs, according to the spokesperson.
Pressure from senators on both sides of the aisle is complicating the proposed multi-billion dollar expenditure to NSF, though the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee advanced the bill Wednesday after six hours of debate.
Some of the amendments proposed during debate sought to reduce funding for NSF and route the money elsewhere, while other amendments dealt with unrelated topics such as the sale of shark fins. Sen. Todd Young of Indiana, a Republican co-sponsor who has worked closely with Mr. Schumer on the proposal, grew frustrated with efforts to lower the amount of funding.
“This is not a bill that’s supposed to, in the main, be about shark fins although that’s important. It’s not, in the main, supposed to be about space, private space companies,” said Mr. Young, his voice rising, at the commerce committee meeting. “It, in the main, is supposed to be about competing, out-competing, out-innovating, outgrowing communist China.”
The bill was introduced on April 20 and is speeding toward the Senate floor for a full vote.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, Washington Democrat, acknowledged Republican concerns that the bill was relatively fast-moving but said she thought the haste was necessary in light of the global race for innovation.