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Two bills introduced within the last month seek to address foreign espionage targeting academic research as Congress continues to pay more attention to this issue and collaborations involving China and Chinese nationals in particular have come under increased scrutiny.

The Protect Our Universities Act, introduced Tuesday by Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, would require students from China, Iran and Russia to undergo background screening before participating in designated “sensitive research projects.” An interagency task force led by the Department of Homeland Security would be charged with maintaining a list of sensitive research projects funded by the member government agencies.

Hawley plans to introduce the bill as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which is currently being marked up in the House and Senate. He said in a statement that American universities are “key targets of espionage and intellectual property theft by not only China, but Russia and Iran.”

“For too long, these countries have sent students to our universities to collect sensitive research that they can later use to develop capabilities that threaten our national security,” Hawley said. “This bill takes much-needed steps to ensure our research stays out of the hands of foreign adversaries who are proactively rooting for our failure.”

Members of Congress, the White House, national security agencies and federal science agencies have all significantly stepped up scrutiny of foreign research links over the past two years, with much of the scrutiny focused on China.

Speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations in April, Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray described China as posing a bigger threat than any other country. “China has pioneered a societal approach to stealing innovation in any way it can from a wide array of businesses, universities and organizations,” Wray said. “They’re doing it through Chinese intelligence services, through state-owned enterprises, through ostensibly private companies, through graduate students and researchers, through a variety of actors, all working on behalf of China.”

The increased scrutiny has raised concerns about racial profiling of Chinese students and scholars and about a chilling effect on collaborations with Chinese institutions. One Chinese American scientist fired by Emory University for allegedly failing to disclose Chinese funding and ties is publicly disputing the charges against him. Bloomberg Businessweek published an article last week about the resignation of a top cancer epidemiologist from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and the targeting of ethnic Chinese scientists for extra scrutiny.

Higher education groups say they share the government's concerns about safeguarding U.S. research, but they warn that taking an overly restrictive approach will harm U.S. science, which is highly international.

Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the American Association of Universities, said he thinks the Protect Our Universities Act proposed by Hawley takes the wrong approach to addressing these issues.

“It ignores that we have mechanisms already in place to safeguard research,” Smith said. “Those mechanisms are classification, export controls and what we call controlled unclassified information. It seems to us that this would create a new category of sensitive research projects, which is very vague and hard to understand. Historically, National Security Decision Directive 189, issued by President Reagan in the '80s, said the primary mechanism for control of information should be classification system, and to the maximum extent possible fundamental research should be kept open.”

“This bill would require background checks of individuals who would be working on fundamental research that is intended to be published and made accessible to the public,” Peter McPherson, the president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, said via email. “International students already go through a visa process. Creating another process would unnecessarily complicate research projects that will ultimately be published online and viewable across the world.”

Both AAU and APLU support a different bill, the Securing American Science and Technology Act, or SASTA, which was introduced in late May by Representative Mikie Sherrill, a Democrat from New Jersey and chair of the House Science Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight.

A number of major higher education and scientific associations have endorsed SASTA, as have dozens of research universities, who wrote in a joint letter that the bill takes “a proactive and sensible approach to safeguarding federally funded research and development from growing threats of foreign interference, cyberattacks, theft and espionage.”

The bill would direct the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy to establish an interagency working group “to coordinate activities to protect federally funded research and development from foreign interference, cyberattacks, theft or espionage and to develop common definitions and best practices for federal science agencies and grantees, while accounting for the importance of the open exchange of ideas and international talent required for scientific progress and American leadership in science and technology.” It also would establish a new National Science, Technology and Security Roundtable to encourage information exchange between academia and federal security and science agencies on these topics.

“There are serious and legitimate concerns about academic espionage at our universities,” Sherrill said in a statement. “That’s why we’re proposing a unified approach to protect research without creating overlapping or contradictory federal requirements. We have to get this right. We must protect our innovation and research while maintaining the international engagement and demonstrated value foreign students bring to our institutions of higher learning.”

AAU’s Smith said that SASTA has been included in the current House version of the NDAA, which appears poised to be the vehicle through which legislation affecting science and security issues will be advanced.

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