In an era of escalating partisanship in Washington, the effort to boost American research institutions and beat China to key discoveries has proven a rare point of cooperation.
But as the Biden administration and some lawmakers look to tighten rules governing collaborations between U.S. and Chinese researchers, cracks in that united front are starting to appear—and a fight over the future of the international R&D ecosystem may be on the horizon.
“This is a new cold war, basically,” Texas GOP Rep. Brian Babin said at last week’s markup of the House Science Committee’s slice of the budget reconciliation bill. “We’re losing proprietary information, we’re losing valuable learning and research, to these people. They’re inside of our research facilities, they’re inside of our colleges and universities.”
Babin was speaking in support of a GOP-led amendment to prohibit federal funds from being used to conduct research in China, or to support any research entity determined to be owned or controlled “directly or indirectly” by the Chinese government. The amendment, along with several other Republican efforts to restrict U.S.-Chinese collaborations, failed due to opposition from Democrats. Rep. Deborah Ross called it “overbroad,” warning it would ban any American scientist who takes federal funds from traveling to China for research.
“We would lose all insight into China’s progress on AI, quantum, biotech, and many other critical fields,” Ross said.
But while they mostly came up short last week, Republicans in both chambers are increasingly united in their support for tougher security measures targeting researchers with ties to China. They’re joined by many Democrats, particularly in the Senate. Across Washington—and despite increasingly frantic warnings from the science lobby to pump the brakes—the screws are tightening on cooperation between U.S. and Chinese researchers.
“I think the U.S. government has greatly benefited from international collaborations, and we’ve been really good at recruiting the best minds to want to come and stay in the United States,” said Deborah Altenburg, the head of research policy and government affairs at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.
“We have to look at our risk management,” said Altenburg. “Is the risk of the loss, the stealing of technology and IP, greater than the loss of potential opportunity?”
Many scientists are increasingly willing to accuse Washington of racism and xenophobia in its fixation on Chinese researchers. A letter sent last week from more than 150 Stanford University professors to Attorney General Merrick Garland accused the government of “fueling biases that, in turn, raise concerns about racial profiling.”
Similar concerns were raised in a June 30 roundtable led by House Democrats Jamie Raskin and Judy Chu. “We need to make sure we don’t repeat the mistakes of the Cold War,” said Chu. “That means not spreading unfounded suspicions that paint all Chinese people as threats and which put innocent Chinese Americans at risk.”
The doubts some House Democrats express over efforts to restrict collaboration between U.S. and Chinese scientists run counter to the support those proposals have received from Democrats in the Senate, including Sens. Tom Carper and Mark Warner. Unlike the upper chamber, Altenburg said House Democrats appear increasingly receptive to the R&D community’s concerns.
“The House, and House leadership, do not feel the same urgency about competition with China,” said Altenburg. “I think they feel this urgency on U.S. social issues.”
Science lobbyists hope to leverage the growing split between the chambers to strip some of the most onerous research-security provisions out of bills now percolating on Capitol Hill. They’re particularly concerned with a slate of security provisions found in the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, a competitiveness package with a raft of anti-China provisions passed by the Senate in June.
But efforts are also underway to ratchet up restrictions in the House—the NSF for the Future Act, which also passed in June, includes a more limited set of research-security provisions. Additional proposals were adopted in last week’s House Science Committee markup, including $25 million for a new research-security office at the National Science Foundation. And even more restrictions are on the table as amendments to this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, which is set to be debated on the House floor next week.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt but that we will be dealing with more federal requirements with respect to research security than we are at the present time,” said Terry Hartle, the head of government relations and public affairs at the American Council on Education. “Our question is whether or not some of the requirements being put in place will make a sufficient difference to be worth the effort.”
Last week ACE, the APLU, and three other groups representing academic interests in Washington sent a letter to congressional committee leaders urging them to strip several research-security provisions out of USICA in conference. At the top of the list is a requirement that the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States review foreign donations to U.S. universities of more than $1 million, a separate provision lowering the reporting threshold on foreign grants from $250,000 to $50,000, and another provision requiring many universities to create a searchable database of all foreign gifts received by researchers or university staff.
“Is that really going to make us more secure?” said Hartle. “Or is that going to tie people into knots providing tons of data to the government?”
Emily Weinstein, a research analyst at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, said Congress “may be asking too much of universities.” After years of promoting international scientific collaboration, Weinstein believes Washington “didn’t really give the academic sector the time to catch up” to the snowballing rivalry between the U.S. and China.
The crackdown on collaboration between U.S. and Chinese researchers escalated in 2019, when lawmakers attached the Securing American Science and Technology Act to the NDAA. But it began a year earlier, when President Trump’s Justice Department created the China Initiative, a program designed to find and prosecute researchers spying for China.
That program hit a serious snag last Thursday, when a federal judge threw out all charges against Dr. Anming Hu, a University of Tennessee professor accused of hiding his affiliation with a Chinese university while receiving money from NASA. The DOJ has so far dropped several similar cases, and successful charges have generally centered around a failure to follow strict reporting requirements for financial grants.
“None of them are really about what you would think of as traditional espionage,” said Weinstein. “They are usually assuming that espionage is the underlying thing, when other rules are actually being broken.”
Opponents of the tightening restrictions are already pointing to Hu’s case as evidence that Washington needs to dial back its anti-China effort.
“I think not only the loss in Tennessee, but the fact that the judge dismissed it and prevented the government from trying it again, illustrates the reason that a lot of campus officials look at this and wonder how much ‘there’ is really there,” said Hartle.
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is in the middle of a 90-day review of agency efforts to secure U.S.-funded research from espionage. Several observers, including Hartle, said they expect the Biden administration to “rebrand” the effort by shifting the emphasis from China to a wider array of threats to research integrity. Neither the White House nor the DOJ responded to requests for comment.
Even if Washington commits to a new cold war between the U.S. and China, it’s not clear policymakers can stamp out worrisome collaborations between American and Chinese researchers.
“During the Cold War, you didn’t have the internet—the governments held the critical information, and the governments could control it in a different way,” said Altenburg. “If you look at today and how interconnected everyone is, industry and academia hold a lot of the information now that people are concerned with, or want to try to control.”
“How do you change the overall government view of what they can actually control?” Altenburg said.