US senators threaten campuses over foreign espionage fears

Lawmakers fret over weak response to China, but can’t say what they would do better

November 20, 2019
Mitt Romney
Source: iStock
Mitt Romney

US lawmakers angered by Chinese exploitation of academic research are threatening new laws restricting universities if the institutions and their grant agencies fail to more actively address the problem.

The long-running concern was amplified by a new US Senate report detailing China’s “systematic targeting of critical technologies” and accusing federal funding and investigative agencies of being slow to react to it.

Senators receiving the report credited the grant agencies and the universities with taking some positive steps to deter the Chinese – including several expulsions by US universities of scientists with ties to China – but suggested that it is not yet enough.

“We need something more robust,” Mitt Romney, a Republican of Utah, told agency officials at a hearing on the report, “than just talking about letting our universities talk about being more aware of it.”

That warning was reiterated by Rob Portman, the head of the investigations subcommittee of the US Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which issued the report.

“This is a matter not of just awareness and encouraging our researchers and our universities, and for that matter our federal agencies, to do the right thing” said Mr Portman, a Republican from Ohio.

At the same moment, the governing board of the National Science Foundation reviewed a report that urged a more nuanced approach to the question of university research and China’s involvement in it.

That report, by the politically conservative Center for Strategic and International Studies, acknowledges legitimate concerns about military and economic competition from China. But the CSIS report also cautions US policymakers against overreaching, noting that the US increasingly found itself in the position of relying on its global partners for scientific expertise.

The CSIS authors note that the US share of science and engineering research papers published worldwide declined from 24 per cent in 2006 to 18 per cent in 2016, while China’s share grew from 12 per cent to 19 per cent.

Another recent analysis, from authors at the University of Arizona, showed that, without China’s help, US research output would have declined over the past few years.

“The United States is no longer the dominant player in global research that it once was,” declare the CSIS authors, one of whom the NSF’s National Science Board invited to its quarterly meeting to present its findings.

That author, Stephanie Segal, a senior fellow at CSIS, acknowledged that policymakers faced a tough task in defining what in publicly-financed research should and should not be shared beyond US borders, particularly in fields such as artificial intelligence with applications in both classified and non-classified work.

“But I think on balance,” Ms Segal told the NSF board, “there’s still a preference to maintain the potential for collaboration, and not controlling something that we don’t possibly know what direction it goes in.”

Over at the Senate hearing, lawmakers acknowledged that difficulty. After raising the possibility of legislation, Mr Romney admitted not knowing what it would look like. He also described administrators at institutions in his home state as fearing that any actions they take on their own, without explicit federal guidance, might look like racial profiling.

“I think we’re looking to you,” the senator told the federal grant-writing agencies.

One idea, proposed by another Republican member of the panel, Josh Hawley of Missouri, would establish mandatory federal “counterintelligence awareness training” for some university faculty, and require federal tracking of foreign students who change their field of study.

Major US research universities oppose the Hawley bill, said Tobin Smith, vice-president for policy at the Association of American Universities. Instead, Mr Smith said in an interview, the universities back a Trump administration effort recently underway to craft an executive branch consensus on how best to handle foreign research collaborations.

That initiative, known as the Joint Committee on the Research Environment, is already showing “positive movement” toward synchronising approaches between the federal government’s national security agencies and its grant-writing agencies, Mr Smith said. “We ought not to legislate too quickly before the agencies make sure they’re all on the same page,” he said.

Part of the overall answer, said one member of the National Science Board, Emilio Moran, a professor of global change science at Michigan State University, is to balance defence with attack. That means recognising that as China has been spending money to build its scientific capacity, the US has been cutting back over the past two decades, leaving its researchers deprived of resources and forced into wasting time competing for what remains, Professor Moran said.

“We need to address that – we need to keep reminding everybody in policy positions that it’s not just about holding back China, but it’s about the US beginning to return to an era of heavy investment in science and technology,” he told the NSF board. “I just don’t see the willingness to do it, and everything else is basically a Band-Aid on a much larger problem of a lack of ambition at the level of policy.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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