NAICU Washington Update

Senate Wants to Move Fast on China

May 14, 2021

Despite the change in the political majority this session, the Senate continues its bipartisan work targeted at concerns about the influence of China and other foreign entities throughout American society. Senators are particularly concerned with foreign influence on research and innovation at American universities, especially those using federal funds. 

There are currently three legislative proposals being debated in the Senate.  While some propose increased investments in our nation’s scientific research, others would put limitations on interactions with foreign entities. 

As Majority Leader, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is leading the process.  His bill, the Endless Frontier Act, authorizes $100 billion for the National Science Foundation (NSF) to invest, advance, and solidify American scientific research and innovation to compete globally.  

The lead Republican in this effort is Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Ranking Member, Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), who introduced the Safeguarding American Innovation Act in the last Congress.  This is a bipartisan bill to protect American research and intellectual property developed at U.S. colleges and universities from being stolen by foreign governments.  

The bill proposes to tighten the reins on foreign gifts by lowering the threshold at which institutions have to report gifts under Section 117 of the Higher Education Act from $250,000 to $50,000.  The bill would create a searchable public database of foreign gifts to colleges and penalize institutions for improper reporting with a fine of up to three times the amount of the unreported gift.  

To minimize federal grant fraud, the bill would mandate a standardized government grant application process with cross-agency information sharing and punish individuals who intentionally fail to disclose gifts or other support from foreign entities with penalties, including fines and imprisonment. 

Sen. Portman’s bill would amend the State Department’s authority to deny visas to “certain foreign nationals seeking access to sensitive technologies,” and requires the Student and Exchange Visitor Program sponsors to “have safeguards against unauthorized access to sensitive technologies and report to State if an exchange visitor will have access to sensitive technologies.” 

Finally, the bill would create a Federal Research Security Council at the Office of Management and Budget with representation from research and education agencies to coordinate the protection of federally funded research, including the sharing of intelligence regarding specific countries. 

Sen. Portman introduced his bill during the mark up of Sen. Shumer’s Endless Frontier Act in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.  He said he could not support the Endless Frontier Act unless his bill was added to it as an amendment. 

A third bill related to this effort is the Strategic Competition Act, passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which includes a provision requiring the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to approve in advance foreign gifts and contracts to colleges and universities over $1 million. The bill also would require HEA Section 117 foreign gift and contract reports to be shared with the Departments of Treasury and Education. 

Sen. Schumer said he would like to bring the package of bills to the Senate floor next week to show that the Senate is “tough on China,” indicating he may accept Sen. Portman’s bill as an amendment, and may include the Strategic Competition Act as part of the package to garner bipartisan support. Swift action in the Senate could make it difficult for colleges and universities to seek improvements in such provisions as those on foreign gifts and visas.  

Currently, there is no companion legislation in the House.  It is unclear if House legislators will have a similar focus on China going forward.

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