The United States Congress is close to reaching an agreement on new plans to restrict foreign involvement in academic research, and higher education institutions are expecting that the exact details will find the right balance between prudent protection and risky overreaction.
The proposals, which are part of national research and development bills already passed by both the House and Senate, target China’s Thousand Talents program, effectively forbidding entrants in that or related foreign funding initiatives from receiving funding from the US government.
The matter is now before a House-Senate joint committee to solve conflicts and disputes before the final implementation, US universities support the underlying concept while hoping for a solution that bans specific behaviours rather than outlaws entire programs.
“The reality is, some of these programs 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.”
After years of US legislators demonizing China’s interest in developing its own core competencies for research and recognizing the Thousand Talents program which comes with high pay for star scientists who return home as an especially suspicious manifestation of that national ambition, that distinction may be difficult to sell in Congress.
Rather than outright prohibiting Thousand Talents and similar schemes, Mr Smith hopes that lawmakers in the House-Senate conference process can be persuaded to identify specific characteristics of foreign funding that should be deemed incompatible with US government grant support.
According to him, a definition-based restriction would identify such objectionable Chinese government grant provisions as those requiring participating scientists to surrender all intellectual property to China. The scientific research bills that oppose the Thousand Talents scheme include language to establish a new division of the US National Science Foundation to assist in the translation of basic scientific discoveries into products.
According to the concerns of some experts in the US university research community, this idea will divert the NSF’s attention and additional funding away from the institution’s more vital objective of promoting fundamental scientific research discovery.
“We’re kind of resigned to the fact that it’ll happen”, said Mr Smith. He also believes that the battle is over now. Provisions in the science bills would also fund academic programs to help elevate academic researchers’ knowledge of the dangers and accountabilities of working with foreign partners, as well as establish non-profit entities to assist universities in dealing with those challenges. Such ideas add value, according to Mr Smith.
As an example, he stated that far too many US scientists continue to travel to China and other adversarial countries without taking even the most basic precautions, such as bringing a laptop free of any information that could be of concern to rivals and susceptible to theft.
These bills also include provisions that academic institutions clearly see as harmful, primarily in the area of disclosure, such as requirements that academic scientists submit and that their universities track virtually every financial transaction that involves an international 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.”