Senator Rob Portman (R–OH) chaired a hearing today on protecting U.S. research.

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U.S. Senate panel sees a standard grant application as defense against foreign influence

The university administrators who have long advocated for a standard grant application process across the U.S. government say it would save time and money. Today, an influential Senate panel offered another reason: to prevent the fruits of government-funded research from falling into the wrong hands.

How to deal with China’s transformation into a technological superpower is a front-burner issue for national policymakers. A new report by the intelligence panel of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs says federal research agencies have been tardy in responding to China’s aggressive moves, which are exemplified by its decadelong effort to recruit world-class scientists working in U.S. labs.

The report’s release coincided with a hearing today that featured senior managers from three of those agencies—the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science—as well as from the Department of State official who oversees visas and the head of counterintelligence at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Those officials described numerous steps their agencies have taken in the past 18 months to protect the integrity of their grantsmaking process, perhaps most notably the letters NIH has sent to more than 70 institutions warning that some of their faculty members may have violated NIH rules by failing to disclose foreign affiliations.

Benefits of harmonization

Despite the scolding tone of the report, senators spent the hearing exploring ways to improve federal oversight rather than assigning blame. They praised the new interagency committee within the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy that is wrestling with the issue. And the idea of a common process for awarding tens of billions of dollars annually in research grants—from vetting the application to monitoring compliance—stood at the top of a bipartisan list of solutions.

“The first step is standardization,” Senator Rob Portman (R–OH), who chairs the intelligence panel, told reporters immediately after the 2-hour hearing concluded. And Portman doesn’t think it would be a heavy lift. “Doing that is simple, and it can be done administratively,” he remarked.

Scientists supported by China’s Thousand Talents Program, its flagship effort to attract foreign researchers, don’t play by U.S. rules, Portman and other senators asserted during the hearing. A uniform grantsmaking process, they reasoned, would make it easier for agencies to spot those who are trying to game the system. A common application, Portman explained during the hearing, would necessarily also mean common procedures for gauging the potential threat to U.S. intellectual property from applicants with financial conflicts of interest, foreign sources of funding, and other entanglements.

Standardization has long been touted as a way to eliminate redundancies and reduce paperwork. And federal agencies over the past few decades have made slow progress on embracing some shared application elements, such as a common biosketch and identification number.

But Portman and his fellow legislators have a larger goal in mind: ensuring that Americans are the primary beneficiary of cutting-edge technologies stemming from federally funded basic research. And they say current efforts to remind scientists and institutions of their obligations to notify agencies of any foreign connections haven’t done the trick.

“We need something more robust than notification and disclosure,” said Senator Mitt Romney (R–UT). Romney recounted a recent meeting with Utah college presidents in which he says they begged him for more guidance on how to combat the threat. “Legislation will give people more clarity,” Portman chimed in.

A balancing act

Democrats on the panel seemed to agree that more aggressive steps are needed. Asked specifically what Congress should be doing, the research honchos voted for better coordination and community awareness. Only the State Department witness made an explicit pitch for legislative intervention, specifically, a broader definition of reasons to turn away someone who wants to work or study in the United States.

“The current law restricts the discretion of consular officers to find visa applicants ineligible, even when there is reason to believe the applicant may intend to export technology many consider to be sensitive but not currently controlled,” said the State Department’s Edward Ramotowski, referring to a formal list of technologies maintained by the Department of Commerce. At the same time, he rejected criticism that the State Department has been finding spurious reasons to bar the entry of Chinese citizens. “Far from weaponizing visas, our response has been measured and targeted,” he said.

Even so, no member ventured into the politically charged issue of immigration. And every senator swore to defend the traditional openness that has been a hallmark of U.S. success in science. “We are trying to develop a strategy to combat what China is doing while staying true to U.S. values,” said Senator Maggie Hassan (D–NH).