National security acts could damage research and exchanges, say US universities

Excessive regulation could damage American research and student exchanges, say universities, as Congress considers new measures to protect institutions from Chinese interference. 

Increased training for researchers on security threats, enhanced scrutiny of foreign partnerships and reviews of international contracts are among the steps US institutions have taken to address foreign security threats, according to a new briefing from the Association of American Universities.

Keen to avoid over-regulation, the group emphasized that researchers “take seriously” national security threats posed by international actors and that universities are still navigating newly-introduced requirements to protect American research.

But, with Congress now considering a raft of additional measures to protect federally funded research data and intellectual property at US institutions, the compliance burden on universities may continue to grow.

“We are concerned about overreach,” said Toby Smith, senior vice president for government relations and public policy at AAU. He explained that universities have not yet had a chance to fully implement and judge the impact of all the measures introduced over the last four years “and yet there keeps being a layering on of additional proposals that are out there”.

“We need to make sure we’re complying with and doing those things well before we see additional requirements added,” he said.

Proposals now under consideration by Congress include The DETERRENT Act, which would slash foreign gift reporting thresholds to $0 for “countries of concern”.

“The Chinese Communist Party has been playing the long game. They know that growing their influence in America in subtle but powerful ways is more effective than traditional warfare, and academia has been a target-rich environment,” said Republican Congress representative John James, who introduced a bill focused on gift disclosure which has since been folded into The DETERRENT Act.

“Requiring our higher learning institutions to disclose nefarious sources of income isn’t just common sense; it’s national security.”

Also under consideration is The Protect America’s Innovation and Economic Security from CCP Act, which would reinstate the China Initiative, a controversial anti-espionage strategy brought in under former president Donald Trump.

In addition, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission released its annual report to Congress at the end of 2023, which suggested a range of recommendations for consideration, including an analysis of the risk posed by money donated to universities from China and Hong Kong.

While universities understand the importance of national security, excessive security requirements could reduce the value of research, according to Smith.

“If you’re spending all the time on compliance and not doing the research, you’re getting less bang for your buck,” he said. “At what point do we have enough research security requirements where just more doesn’t really help you?”

There are also concerns that regulations will have a chilling effect on legitimate partnerships and student exchanges with China.

If passed, the DETERRENT Act would mean universities require waivers from the Education Secretary for any contract with a “foreign entity of concern”, including research collaborations and student mobility agreements.

“I don’t know that the Secretary of Education will be capable of really granting the number of waivers that would be required to do this in a timely and efficient fashion,” said Smith.

“Our universities are taking these issues seriously,” he added. “We understand the concerns. We just ought not to go too far so that we actually end up harming national security.”

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