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Congress creates two new bodies to tackle foreign influence on U.S. research

Congress is set to approve a major defense bill that would establish two new high-level bodies aimed at preventing foreign governments from unfairly exploiting the U.S. research enterprise. University and science groups are breathing a quiet sigh of relief after persuading lawmakers to drop related provisions that they considered problematic.

One, based in the White House, would work to coordinate action by more than a dozen government agencies to protect federally funded research projects from cyberattacks, theft, and other foreign threats. The other group, a round table run by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), will bring together officials from academia, government, and industry to advise the government on ways to achieve national security without undermining valuable international collaborations.

The legislation, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), also includes a provision requiring the director of national intelligence to produce an annual report that identifies “sensitive research … that could affect national security” that is being conducted at U.S. universities and that could be of interest to foreign entities.

The NDAA provisions come in response to rising concern across the U.S. government that foreign entities, especially the Chinese government and affiliated institutions, have been systematically targeting the acquisition of intellectual property generated by U.S.-funded research. The National Institutes of Health and other federal funding agencies have cracked down on grantees who have failed to disclose foreign ties or improperly shared confidential materials such as grant applications with foreign entities. Universities have fired some researchers involved in these cases, and prosecutors have filed criminal charges against at least two scientists alleged to have violated federal rules.

Reacting to such developments, lawmakers in both the House of Representatives and the Senate drafted legislation earlier this year aimed at addressing foreign influence. In general, university and science groups supported the House language, which called for the creation of the White House task force and the NASEM round table. They were less enamored with the Senate version, which also would have required universities to adopt certain cybersecurity measures and for federal agencies to create a secret registry of researchers who had violated rules on the disclosure of foreign ties. Those steps were too burdensome and went too far, they argued. None of the legislation moved forward on its own, but large chunks were incorporated into the defense bill.

The final version of the NDAA, released last night, essentially hews to the House approach. And that “is great news,” says Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities in Washington, D.C. He notes that President Donald Trump’s science adviser, Kelvin Droegemeier, has already created an interagency task force on foreign influence under the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “So, he’s moved ahead without waiting for the legislation, and I give him a lot of credit for that,” Smith says. Among other things, the White House task force is examining ways to standardize policies across federal funding agencies and educate the academic science community on ways to protect their research.

Smith says he is looking forward to the creation of the NASEM group, which is officially known as the National Science, Technology and Security Roundtable. It is expected to give both academia and industry a clearer voice in policy debates, as well as provide a forum for hashing out complex issues. The defense bill calls for a final report in 2024, when the round table’s mandate will expire. But Smith notes that Congress must still approve funding to operate the round table. (The House has proposed providing $3 million.)

The new report on “sensitive” academic research, meanwhile, is likely to renew a long-simmering debate over how the U.S. government can best keep cutting-edge basic science that has security implications out of the hands of adversaries. Since the 1980s, the guiding document has been an executive order issued by former President Ronald Reagan. It calls on government officials to either classify as secret any basic research results they believe should not be shared, or simply leave them in the public domain. Efforts to define new categories of controlled information, such as “sensitive but unclassified” data, have tended to spur controversy and confusion.

Given that history, Smith says, the phrase “sensitive research” raises a red flag. “I think the intentions [behind the new report] are well meaning; they want to provide clarity” in defining the kinds of research results that need protection, he says. But such definitions “can get very complicated and hard to understand and apply. And we’ve already got a policy on this: If it’s really sensitive, then just classify it.”

The mammoth NDAA, which primarily sets policy and spending levels for the Department of Defense, is considered one of the few bills that Congress must pass each year. Lawmakers are expected to approve it as early as this week and send it to Trump for his signature.