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Expansion of Foreign Funding Disclosure Requirements in Academia Passed by House

DEC 07, 2023
A bill to expand disclosure requirements for universities and individual researchers receiving gifts or contracts from foreign sources passed the House with bipartisan support and now heads to the Senate.
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Science Policy Reporter, FYI American Institute of Physics
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Director of FYI
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House Education and Workforce Committee Chair Virginia Foxx (R-NC) speaks on the House floor on Dec. 6 in favor of legislation to expand disclosure requirements for universities receiving foreign funding.

(House Floor Video)

A bill introducing new reporting requirements for universities and academics receiving foreign financial support passed the House yesterday by a vote of 246-170. Though some Democrats raised concerns the bill would have a chilling effect on international collaboration, 31 Democrats ultimately joined Republicans to approve the measure.

The Defending Education Transparency and Ending Rogue Regimes Engaging in Nefarious Transactions (DETERRENT) Act would lower the current reporting threshold from $250,000 to $50,000 for funding from most countries, with a $0 threshold for “countries of concern” such as China and Iran. The legislation would also introduce new disclosure requirements for foreign gifts to individual researchers working at universities that receive more than $50 million annually in federal R&D funds.

In remarks on the House floor, Education and Workforce Committee Chair Virginia Foxx (R-NC) said the DETERRENT Act would “restore transparency and accountability in foreign donations to American universities” by expanding existing disclosure rules established decades ago by section 117 of the Higher Education Act.

In addition to lowering minimum reporting thresholds, the bill “closes loopholes that allow foreign entities to hide the true origin or purpose of their gifts,” Foxx said, adding that “every disclosure must include the intended purpose, dates, and person at the institution responsible for accepting the gift.” The bill also requires researchers at large research universities to publicly disclose gifts and contracts “so the American people can see if academic work is compromised,” Foxx said. Finally, it sets “real, meaningful penalties for universities that fail to comply,” she said.

As evidence of weaknesses of the current policy, she cited a 2019 Senate investigation that concluded nearly 70% of U.S. schools that received funding from Hanban, an affiliate of the Chinese Ministry of Education, had failed to correctly disclose that amount to the Department of Education.

During committee debate on the bill, Foxx also cited the case of Harvard University chemist Charles Lieber, who was sentenced earlier this year for lying to federal authorities about his ties to China. “In an age of unconventional warfare, postsecondary education is an easy target for adversaries seeking to steal our national security secrets and undermine our unifying national principles,” Foxx said, adding that foreign countries use lavish gifts to “extract favors from top American academics.”

By a vote of 202-213, the House rejected an alternative proposal put forward by Committee Ranking Member Bobby Scott (D-VA) that would set the reporting threshold for institutions at $100,000 rather than $50,000, remove all references to “countries of concern” and related restrictions, and get rid of the extra disclosure requirements for individual researchers, among other provisions.

Arguing against the underlying bill on Wednesday, Scott said the extra scrutiny placed on certain countries could lead to discrimination against researchers who have ties with them. “We have seen, in cases such as the wrongfully accused MIT faculty member, that this sort of targeting can easily lead to harmful consequences rooted in xenophobia for innocent scholars,” alluding to the Justice Department’s dropped case against nanoengineering professor Gang Chen.

Scott read from a letter sent by the Asian American Scholar Forum that raises concerns about chilling effects of the new disclosure requirements. “The DETERRENT Act’s definition of a ‘foreign source’ includes not just individuals overseas but those with lawful immigration status in the United States who are not U.S. citizens or nationals. As a practical matter, the DETERRENT Act would force scholars and researchers to scrutinize the immigration status of potential collaborators and would deter them from collaboration with individuals who may be perceived to be immigrants,” he quoted.

Scott also said that even a gift as small as a cup of coffee could fall under the new disclosure requirements, and that information about individual researchers who receive gifts would be posted in a public database regardless of whether the gifts are deemed nefarious.

“This is excessive and burdensome — to say nothing about the potential discriminatory effect — and would disincentivize universities from conducting critical research using collaborative partners from around the world,” he said.

Criticizing Scott’s proposal, Foxx defended the approach of applying extra scrutiny to countries of concern rather than taking a country-agnostic approach. She also argued Scott’s proposal has “gaping loopholes for cunning adversaries” and does not include stringent enough fees for noncompliance.

The House did however take a step toward addressing privacy concerns, adopting an amendment by Rep. Mike Carey (R-OH) that would remove the personally identifiable information of individual researchers from the public database of disclosed gifts that the legislation would create.

The DETERRENT Act is the latest in a series of congressional initiatives to address concerns about foreign influence at American universities. Last year’s CHIPS and Science Act includes a host of provisions on the subject, including a requirement that institutions funded by the National Science Foundation must disclose gifts and contracts worth $50,000 or more from countries of concern.

The American Council on Education has argued Congress should do more to examine implementation of the CHIPS and Science Act before adding sweeping new requirements. It has also raised deep concerns about certain provisions of the DETERRENT Act, including its requirement that institutions receive a waiver from the Department of Education before beginning or continuing any contract with a country or entity of concern.

“This provision is particularly concerning because the definition of a ‘contract’ in the bill is incredibly broad and therefore will likely capture not only all research agreements, but also student exchange programs and other joint cultural and education programs with Chinese institutions,” the council wrote in a letter to Congress.

The DETERRENT Act now heads to the Senate for consideration. The Senate so far has not introduced companion legislation but various senators have expressed interest in expanding oversight of foreign contracts and gifts to universities.

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