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Congress Wrestles with Foreign Infiltration of US Universities

The latest NDAA tries to stop potential adversaries from recruiting talent and stealing innovative technology on campus.

Identifying a problem is just step one — solving it is a whole other beast. So Congress is trying a few things to counter potential adversaries’ attempts to undermine and co-opt America’s research and innovation.

The House Armed Services Committee’s version of the annual defense policy bill, reported to the floor last week, includes a provision that takes aim at Russian, Chinese, Iranian, and North Korean efforts to match America’s technological edge by insinuating themselves into U.S. universities. It would require the Defense Department to certify that its grants go only to researchers who haven’t participated in a talent-recruitment program by one of those countries.

If that sounds vague or potentially overbroad, several lawmakers on the committee would agree with you. But more on that later. Because even many of those who voted against the ultimately successful proposal said they supported its intent.

Pentagon officials have repeatedly warned in recent years that the U.S.’s military edge is eroding, as adversaries develop hypersonic weapons the U.S. can't counter and other advanced capabilities that chip away at long-assumed advantages.

Stealing information — or even just wooing away experts — from top American research institutions is one way that other countries have narrowed that gap, Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., said last week.

“For years, experts have been sounding the alarm about foreign talent recruitment programs and their role in facilitating technology transfer to peer competitors,” said Gallagher, who sponsored the amendment. “For instance, the Chinese Thousand Talents program seeks to attract academics to come to China and participate in cutting-edge research in service of the Chinese goal of becoming the leading global power in science and technology by 2049.”

In an era where the Pentagon looks outside its own walls for cutting-edge ideas, those efforts attack the core of national security, lawmakers say.

“Part of our whole process of ingenuity is based on seeking research at universities, and those individuals and their creativity,” Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, said last week as the committee debated Gallagher’s proposal. “Our adversaries systematically look to steal this intellectual property and infiltrate our processes of trying to advance the technology for our national security and defense.”

U.S. officials have sounded alarm bells about IP theft and other technology transfers in both the commercial and military worlds, pointing to things like the Chinese J-22, a fifth-generation fighter jet that critics have said is remarkably similar to Lockheed Martin’s F-35.

“These foreign talent-recruitment programs aren't only a threat to our technological superiority,” Gallagher said. “I've heard specific counterintelligence concerns of the office of the undersecretary for intelligence about these programs.”

But figuring out how to address those challenges is another matter. Gallagher’s provision would give the Defense Department six months to develop a certification process for determining that researchers hadn’t participated in such a program, then another six months to implement it. At that point, the Defense Secretary could “terminate existing funding of, or prohibit the award of future funding” to anyone unable to meet that certification.

Several lawmakers on the committee said that’s too overbroad. Left to the Pentagon, that undefined certification process has the potential to curtail all kinds of international participation at U.S. universities who are terrified of having federally funded research projects yanked.

“This amendment didn't say a single word about what that certification process is except that the Department of Defense gets to do it,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the committee’s ranking member.

“What the universities are concerned about is not being able to meet the certification process,” he said. “Since they don't know what it is or what it might be, it’s a justifiable fear … The question is the universities think is, ‘If we can’t meet that certification process, we’re just not going to take anyone, because we can't take the chance of losing the money.’”

While some of the programs that would decertify an applicant might be easily identified, like the Thousand Talents one, Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md., asked what else could count — a stint in China collaborating with a colleague? What about a cultural exchange trip to Iran?

The debate, symptomatic of the U.S. government’s challenges in countering all kinds of informational and irregular warfare, wrapped up with the amendment approved by voice vote. The measure is included in the National Defense Authorization Act that may get to the House floor as early as next week.

Behind the scenes, Democrats said they’d like to continue working with Gallagher and others to refine the proposal when the bill goes to conference with the Senate later this year.

“I would say I’ve been struck, as a new member of the committee over the last year, listening to testimony after testimony about how some of our adversaries and competitors are far more sophisticated than we are in this space, and if nothing else I think we need transparency and a better understanding of what’s happening,” Gallagher said. “This starts the conversation.”