Senate panel backs funding ban on U.S. researchers in Chinese talent programs

Senator Maria Cantwell (D–WA) managed hours of debate yesterday on the Endless Frontier Act.

U.S. Senate

The U.S. Senate’s commerce committee has voted to ban any U.S. scientist who participates in a Chinese-sponsored talent recruitment program from receiving or making use of federal funding. Yesterday’s vote—just the first step toward making the provision law—represents a ratcheting up of current U.S. efforts to block the Chinese government from stealing or gaining improper access to federally funded research.

The new restrictions are tucked into bipartisan legislation championed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–NY), called the Endless Frontier Act (EFA), which  would authorize massive budget increases for the National Science Foundation and research at the Department of Energy, and also give NSF a new technology directorate. The committee voted 24–4 to advance the latest version of the bill (S.1260), which could be headed to the Senate floor as soon as next week. A similar bill with the same restrictions is pending in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The 340-page EFA is aimed at strengthening the country’s ability to turn basic research into technologies essential for U.S. economic and national security. Supporters see China as the main threat to U.S. leadership in innovation, and many of its provisions are meant to counter China’s aggressive efforts over the past 2 decades to bolster innovation in areas such as artificial intelligence and quantum information science.

One approach China has taken is to invite world-class scientists, often born in China but now working in another country, to renew or establish ties with Chinese institutions. These talent recruitment programs go by various names, but all provide selected scientists with lavish funding and senior positions. In 2018, U.S. government agencies began a campaign to prosecute federally funded scientists who had failed to disclose such ties when seeking their next grant. The National Institutes of Health alone has identified more than 200 scientists at nearly 100 institutions who it suspects have broken its rules requiring disclosure of foreign ties, and a small fraction of them are now facing federal charges of lying to authorities about those links.

Under Section 303 of the EFA, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) would be required to develop “a uniform set of policy guidelines for Federal science agencies regarding foreign government talent recruitment programs.” But unlike a memo on the issue released by former President Donald Trump shortly before leaving office, which included nonbinding recommendations, the Senate bill spells out what the agency guidance should say.

Several agencies already ban employees and contractors from participating in such programs. The EFA would extend that ban across the entire government. It also encompasses a much larger pool of academic scientists who receive federal grants.

Currently, those grantees only need to disclose their participation in such talent programs to federal funders. Under the EFA, any researcher involved in programs sponsored by China, Russia, North Korea, or Iran would be blocked from being a principal investigator of a new grant. Those scientists, “to the extent possible,” would also be banned from working on a colleague’s grant or benefiting from any other federal funding to that institution.

OSTP would be required to issue the new rules within 6 months of the bill becoming law. Each federal would then have 1 year to adopt a policy that adheres to those marching orders.

For the foreign influence provision to become law, the full Senate and House will have to approve the EFA, and President Joe Biden would have to sign it. Although there is widespread support for strengthening U.S. innovation—and Biden has endorsed the new NSF directorate—there are sharp partisan differences on overall U.S. policy toward China that need to be resolved before final passage.

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