Congress Examines Foreign Influences in Taxpayer Funded Research

June 27, 2019

The issue of foreign influence in taxpayer-funded research has been a growing concern in Washington, DC in recent years. On June 5, the Senate Finance Committee convened a hearing, “Foreign Threats to Taxpayer-Funded Research: Oversight Opportunities and Policy Solutions” to better understand the risks and consider possible solutions. Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) raised this issue last fall in a letter to the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In his opening statement, Senator Grassley said, “Today is an opportunity for the witnesses to engage in a frank discussion about what that threat is and what we in Congress and the Executive Branch can do together to solve the problem.” The hearing, which featured two panels of federal witnesses and an NIH grantee, explored foreign threats to U.S. scientific research integrity, including grantees’ failure to disclose foreign financial contributions, diversion of intellectual property, espionage, and infiltration of the peer review processes.

During the hearing, NIH Principal Deputy Director Dr. Lawrence Tabak, testified that the agency is communicating with 61 grantee institutions about possible cases involving potential security breaches.  Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General Chief of Investigative Operations Les Hollie said his office is investigating 16 cases brought forth by NIH. Another witness NIH grantee, Dr. Joe Gray, Oregon Health and Science University, reminded senators how vital international collaborations are for advancing the U.S scientific research enterprise. He urged lawmakers to resist enacting overly burdensome regulations that would discourage U.S. and foreign scientists from collaborating and sharing data. Many of our FABBS societies have international memberships and collaboration.

Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR) stated his support for efforts to protect federally funded research but raised concerns that such policies could have the unintended effect of interrupting international collaboration and discouraging the best and brightest international students from engaging with American scientists. A video of the hearing and statement copies can be found here. The public hearing was followed by a classified briefing.

It is unclear what Congress and the Administration may next do to address foreign threats to U.S. funded scientific research.  A member of the committee, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) announced his intention to introduce legislation this summer that would establish an interagency working group “to enhance cyber-security protocols and protect federally funded research from foreign interference, espionage and exfiltration.” His legislation would be similar to a bill, H.R. 3038, Securing American Science and Technology Act, that Representative Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ) introduced in May 2019.  The bill currently has 25 cosponsors and has been referred to the House Armed Services and House Science, Space, and Technology Committee for further consideration. The Association of American Universities (AAU), Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) and American Association for the Advancement of Science are currently circulating a community sign-on letter in support of H.R. 3038.

Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) took a very different approach to addressing concerns about foreign influence when he introduced S.1879. Hawley’s bill would require students from China, Iran and Russia to undergo background screening before participating in designated “sensitive research projects.” This legislation would create an interagency task force led by the Department of Homeland Security charged with maintaining a list of sensitive research projects funded by the federal government agencies. AAU and APLU have raised concerns about the proposed legislation.