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A Senate committee has backed a security bill put together by Senators Rob Portman (R–OH, left) and Tom Carper (D–DE, right).

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

Research security bill advances in U.S. Senate despite opposition from research groups

A U.S. Senate panel yesterday unanimously endorsed legislation to tighten oversight of federally funded researchers with ties to foreign governments. The move came despite objections from universities whose faculty would come under increased scrutiny if the bill becomes law.

The bipartisan support from the Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs for the Safeguarding American Innovation Act (S. 3997) reflects an apparent growing consensus that Congress should respond to Chinese-backed research collaborations seen as threatening national security. The bill includes expanded authority for the State Department to limit immigration, stiffer penalties for scientists who fail to disclose their foreign ties on grant applications, a lower threshold for individuals and institutions to report foreign gifts, and a new research oversight body led by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

However, a bevy of higher education organizations are worried that taking such actions would actually undermine innovation by making U.S. institutions less attractive to foreign scholars and increase paperwork requirements without making the country safer. After months of behind-the-scenes negotiations with committee staff, they took the unusual step of declaring their opposition in two letters sent shortly before yesterday’s vote.

“We appreciate that [co-sponsors] Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Tom Carper (D-DE) have changed language in certain sections in response to concerns raised by the higher education community,” notes a letter from the presidents of four major groups—the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the Association of American Medical Colleges, and the American Council on Education. “But there are additional changes that must be made … Without such changes, we cannot support the bill.”

In a brief victory speech after the vote, Portman appeared miffed that the organizations had gone public with their objections. “I am discouraged that our research universities sent a letter to the committee without going through Senator Carper and myself,” said Portman, who chairs the committee’s permanent subcommittee on investigations.

Portman said he and Carper had amended the bill they introduced last month to address “two of their four concerns” and that “we are happy to talk” about the remaining points of contention. In particular, he asserted that the bill won’t shut off the flow of foreign talent to the United States, noting it “does nothing” to prevent Chinese undergraduates from attending U.S. universities.

But Portman also took a shot at his critics. “Some of our research universities are not just naïve,” he said. “Sometimes they want to look the other way” when foreign governments try to influence faculty members receiving federal funding. The legislation, Carper added, is meant to “slow down or stop” China’s efforts “to steal our research.”

Research advocates say Portman’s description of their concerns is inaccurate. “It’s never been about undergraduates, and they know that,” one lobbyist says. “What we’re worried about is the [bill’s] impact on foreign graduate students and other scholars who want to come here.”

The committee has yet to post the updated version of the legislation approved yesterday. But sources say it only makes minor changes in wording and that the sections dealing with visa denials and the new research security entity within the White House have not been altered.

The second letter, submitted by many of the same organizations, details concerns about visa applicants being denied entry “based on a suspicion of activity rather than any actual violation of the law,” as well as about language that greatly expands the pool of employees who must report foreign gifts. “If you are looking for a needle, it makes no sense to make the haystack bigger,” the letter chides legislators.

Despite what appear to be fundamental disagreements, Portman and Carper signaled their willingness to continue negotiations with the research community. “I know that some of you have concerns … and I appreciate that you didn’t vote against” the bill, Portman said to his colleagues. As for further negotiations, he added, “we’re open for business.”

Carper called the bill “a work in progress” and said “we hope to make it even better” before it comes up for a vote by the full Senate. It’s not clear when that might happen, however, given the handful of days that the Senate will be in session between now and the November election. For their part, university lobbyists see no further action this year as the best option.