Congress has dropped language from a must-pass bill governing U.S. defense policy that would have effectively prevented U.S. scientists from participating in Chinese programs aimed at attracting foreign scientific talent. But a similar provision applying to such programs may be tucked into a second bill aimed at outcompeting China that is now being hammered out between the Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.
On Tuesday the House of Representatives passed the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) by a vote of 363 to 70, and the Senate is expected to follow suit soon. The bill, a rare example of bipartisan legislation that lawmakers adopt each year, provides some 2165 pages of policy guidance and authorized spending levels for programs at the Department of Defense (DOD) and related agencies responsible for national security. It represents a compromise negotiated by leaders of the House and Senate armed services committees to reconcile differences between the two bodies.
One difference that negotiators had to address involved rules regarding participation in research programs run by China and three other countries—Russia, Iran, and North Korea—that are regarded as exerting a “malign foreign influence” on U.S. innovation. It is not generally illegal for U.S. scientists to participate in such foreign talent programs, although several U.S. scientists have been charged with breaking federal disclosure rules by failing to report alleged support from China’s Thousand Talents Program.
Last summer, the House, in its version of the NDAA, prohibited any scientist involved in those foreign talent programs from also receiving federal research funds. The intent was to ensure that U.S. research dollars don’t fuel technological breakthroughs in the four countries. The Senate bill, which never reached the floor, did not include a similar exclusion.
Although such a ban has broad bipartisan support, the NDAA provision overlapped with language in a different bill that is moving rapidly through Congress. The U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), championed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–NY), would authorize massive investments in research—including a new, multibillion-dollar technology directorate at the National Science Foundation (NSF)—as well as require closer monitoring of that spending to protect national interests.
The Senate commerce and science committee has jurisdiction over much of the USICA, and its leaders wanted to shape any provisions relating to research security that wind up in the final version of the act. Also wanting a larger voice in the matter are leaders of the House science committee, which has adopted a similar ban in separate bills reauthorizing programs at NSF and the Department of Energy.
Bowing to those committees, NDAA negotiators agreed to remove any related provisions from their bill, including the foreign talent ban and two other House-passed provisions. One asked the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to study the feasibility of creating an independent body that would assess ongoing risks to the U.S. research enterprise, and a second ordered federal agencies to require that all grantees receive training in research security.
Higher education lobbyists expect Congress will ultimately vote to prohibit federally funded researchers from participating in some foreign talent programs—particularly those sponsored by China—and agree that the USICA is an appropriate vehicle. “We understand why [lawmakers] wanted to deal with it in USICA, and we’re fine with that,” one lobbyist says. University groups are hoping to persuade Congress to write the provision so that it doesn’t also prevent federally funded scientists from training students, attending meetings, and participating in other research activities that may involve interactions with China.
University lobbyists are breathing a sigh of relief about another provision that was dropped from the final NDAA bill. As drafted by the Senate, it would have required defense contractors, including universities, to post the content of all training materials used to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. “The sweeping scope of this provision would lead to costly and burdensome compliance for no clear purpose,” a coalition of higher education groups wrote to congressional leaders earlier this month. The groups said the provision, which specifically mentions critical race theory, would also infringe on free speech and academic freedom on hundreds of U.S. campuses receiving DOD funding.