S.3997: Safeguarding American Innovation Act

As highlighted in an April 2019 editorial in BioScience, U.S. lawmakers are increasingly concerned about foreign threats to the U.S. scientific research enterprise, including threats to national security and the theft of intellectual property. Policymakers in Congress and federal agencies continue to explore how to maintain an open and collaborative scientific environment that simultaneously prevents foreign interests from stealing U.S. research. The most recent proposal from Congress comes in the form of bipartisan legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate.

The Safeguarding American Innovation Act (S. 3997) was introduced by Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Tom Carper (D-DE), Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, to “help stop foreign governments, particularly China, from stealing American taxpayer-funded research and intellectual property developed at U.S. colleges and universities.” The bill has bipartisan support – with eight Republican and five Democratic co-sponsors. According to Senator Portman, the bill would “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.”

If enacted, the legislation would punish individuals with penalties ranging from fines to imprisonment for intentionally failing to disclose foreign support on federal grant applications. The bill would require 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.” Another provision would allow the State Department to reject visa applications from foreign nationals “when it is contrary to U.S. national security and economic security interests of the United States.”

The bill would mandate a standardized grant process and authorize the Office of Management and Budget to work with federal grant-making agencies to oversee research security. In addition, the reporting threshold for U.S. institutions receiving foreign gifts would be lowered from $250,000 to $50,000 and the Department of Education would be given authority to punish schools that fail to appropriately report such gifts.

Some in the research community are concerned that the legislation could restrict collaborative science. According to Science Insider, the Association of American Universities, a 66-member coalition of research institutions, said in a statement that “key provisions in the bill are overly broad and will only serve to harm American science without improving national security… We appreciate that Senators Portman and Carper have changed language in certain sections of the bill in response to concerns raised by our universities, but the breadth of the current bill language could still block talented students and scholars from coming to the U.S., where they advance our science and economic interests.”

This is not the first measure proposed by lawmakers to deal with academic espionage. Last year, lawmakers in both chambers introduced legislation intended to address foreign threats to the U.S. research enterprise.