Bipartisan Senate Bill Aims to Stop China’s Technology Theft, Gives Feds New Tools to Stop Campus Espionage

June 18, 2020 Updated: June 21, 2020

A bipartisan Senate coalition introduced legislation June 18 designed to put an end to “nearly two decades” of federal officials being “asleep at the wheel” as China stole valuable U.S. knowledge and technology to build up its economy and military.

The Safeguarding American Innovation Act’s chief co-sponsors are Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Tom Carper (D-Del.), who together have led a two-year investigation of Chinese commercial, academic, and technological espionage against the United States. Portman is chairman of the Permanent Investigations Subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, while Carper is the most senior Democratic member.

Among the major provisions of the proposal, according to a statement issued by Portman, are these:

  • Punishing individuals who intentionally fail to disclose foreign support on federal grant applications, with penalties ranging from fines and imprisonment for not more than five years or both, and a five-year prohibition on receiving a federal grant.
  • Strengthening the Student and Exchange Visitor Program by requiring the State Department’s exchange 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.
  • Strengthening the State Department’s authority to deny visas to certain foreign nationals seeking access to sensitive technologies when it is contrary to U.S. national security and economic security interests of the United States.
  • Mandating a standardized U.S. government grant process by authorizing the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to work with federal grant-making agencies to standardize the grant application process, share information about grantees, and create a U.S. government-wide database of federal grantees.
  • Lowering the reporting threshold for U.S. schools and universities receiving foreign gifts from $250,000 to $50,000 and giving the Department of Education the authority to punish schools that fail to properly report.

The bill implements recommendations from the subcommittee’s series of reports beginning in February 2019, which exposed how China used its Confucius Institutes to funnel more than $150 million to U.S. universities and scholars at 100 institutions of higher learning and research.

The subcommittee found, among much else, that more than 70 percent of U.S. institutions failed to disclose Chinese funding, even though it often came with “strings that compromise academic freedom.”

The subcommittee’s work has helped prompt increased attention by federal officials and academic administrations on espionage on American campuses by China and other foreign governments.

Earlier this year, a federal grand jury indicted former Harvard University Chemistry Department Chairman Charles Lieber for making false statements about funding he received from China under its Thousand Talents recruitment program, which, like the Confucius Institutes, is used to steal U.S.-developed technological resources.

Lieber, who specializes in nanoscience, worked with China’s Wuhan University of Technology as a “strategic scientist” and was involved with the Chinese program for years.

“For nearly two decades, the federal government has been asleep at the wheel while foreign governments have exploited the lack of transparency in our education system and bought access and influence on our school campuses,” Portman said in the statement announcing the proposal.

“This bill will help us stop foreign governments from stealing our research and innovation while also increasing transparency to ensure that taxpayers know when colleges and universities accept significant foreign funding. We must hold countries that act in bad faith, like China, accountable,” Portman said.

“Last month, it was reported that foreign hackers were targeting our nation’s universities and health care firms in an attempt to steal intellectual property related to coronavirus treatments,” Carper said in the statement.

“Unfortunately, this is not the first time a foreign government has tried to get ahead by stealing the product of American ingenuity. A recent investigation Senator Portman and I led revealed the ways in which the Chinese government has worked to exploit the open and collaborative nature of the U.S. research community to advance their businesses and military interests.

“Today, with input from our nation’s higher education community and the federal agencies charged with fostering scientific innovation, Senator Portman and I are introducing a common sense, bipartisan bill to protect American intellectual property and better leverage our international research partnerships.”

Other co-sponsors of the proposal include Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), James Risch (R-Idaho), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-Nev.), Rick Scott (R-Fla.), Mike Braun (R-Ind.), and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.).

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