US set to impose limits on China’s Thousand Talents programme

Universities see room for reasonable new legal restraints on foreign-funded scientists but fear overreach as final deal comes into shape

December 20, 2021
 Coast Guards set up "water barriers" to restrict access under bridges near the Tampa Bay to illustrate US set to impose limits on China’s Thousand Talents programme
Source: Getty

The US Congress is nearing consensus on new plans to limit foreign influence in academic research, and universities are hoping that the final details will strike a balance between prudent protection and dangerous overreaction.

The initiatives, part of science policy bills already passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate, take aim at China’s Thousand Talents programme, largely barring participants in that or in similar overseas funding initiatives from receiving US government support.

With the matter now facing a House-Senate conference committee to resolve differences ahead of final enactment, US universities are backing the underlying concept but holding out hope for an approach that forbids particular behaviours rather than outlaws entire programmes.

“The reality is, some of these programmes probably aren’t a problem at all,” said Tobin Smith, vice-president for policy at the Association of American Universities. “It’s what they’re promoting, the types of activities, that are really what this is going after.”

That distinction may prove a hard sell in Congress, after years of US politicians demonising China’s interest in building its own research capacity and identifying the Thousand Talents programme – with its offers of high pay for star scientists who return home – as an especially suspicious manifestation of that national ambition.

Rather than ban Thousand Talents and similar schemes by name, Mr Smith said, lawmakers in the House Senate conference process hopefully can be convinced to identify specific characteristics of foreign funding that should be deemed incompatible with US government grant support.

A definition-based restriction, he said, would name such objectionable Chinese government grant provisions as those requiring that participating scientists surrender all their intellectual property to China.

“Trying to get to get a tight definition is important,” said Mr Smith.

The science bills containing the pushback against the Thousand Talents scheme also include language to create a new division of the US National Science Foundation to help convert basic scientific discoveries into products.

That idea has made some in the US university research community concerned that it may distract the NSF and its future funding from the agency’s more critical mission of promoting basic scientific research discovery. Yet that battle seems over, Mr Smith said. “We’re kind of resigned to the fact it’s going to happen,” he said.

Also in the science bills are provisions that would finance educational programmes to help raise academic researchers’ awareness of the risks and responsibilities of working with foreign partners, and that would initiate non-profit entities to help universities better handle those challenges.

Such ideas seem valuable, Mr Smith said. As one example, he noted that too many US scientists still travel to China and other adversarial nations without following such basic precautions as taking a laptop cleaned of any data that might be of interest to rivals and vulnerable to theft.

The science bills also have aspects that universities more clearly consider detrimental, largely in the areas of disclosure, including requirements that academic scientists report – and that their universities track – virtually every financial transaction involving a foreign partner.

“What we’re worried about is that to get certain Republican votes, they’ll have to keep them in there, and those are really problematic,” Mr Smith said of such provisions. “We need to take a balanced approach here and be careful not to totally pull out of relationships with China, because they’re tremendously valuable.”

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