U.S. Rep. Jim Banks introduced legislation Tuesday that seeks to prevent federally funded sensitive research at American colleges from being pilfered by foreign adversaries.
The Protect Our Universities Act would require students from China, North Korea, Russia and Iran to obtain waivers from the national intelligence director to participate in research projects financed by the Defense and Energy departments and the intelligence community.
Banks' bill would prohibit technology from companies of those nations from being used in sensitive research projects at schools.
“We must get tough against these covert threats on college campuses and limit the effectiveness of their information-gathering missions,” Banks, R-3rd, said in a statement.
Banks' legislation identifies six companies he said have posed espionage threats to university research projects: Huawei Technologies, ZTE, Hytera Communications, Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology and Dahua Technology, all of China, and Kaspersky Lab of Russia.
Various nations, including the United States, have accused telecommunications giant Huawei of spying and intellectual theft. Last week, Huawei sued the U.S. government over a law banning the purchase of its products by federal agencies.
Banks said he introduced his legislation because of the Education Department's “lack of an adequate response” to his written request last June that a working group be formed to address his concerns about risks to American research.
His proposal would set up an Education Department interagency task force that would maintain a list of sensitive research projects, monitor foreign student participation and provide universities with information about espionage threats.
Banks' measure notes that more than 300,000 Chinese nationals attend colleges or work for labs, innovation centers, incubators and think tanks in the U.S.
“Foundational research for key U.S. defense technologies lacks the proper safeguards at our institutions of higher education,” Banks said in his statement.
“Adversarial companies, often influenced by foreign governments, are eager to take advantage of U.S. technological advances and vibrant university research efforts. Countries like China may use subversive tactics to gain footholds in major STEM programs in U.S. universities to create a pipeline of data and information back to the mainland.”
In early 2018, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Intelligence Committee that his agency was keeping tabs on Chinese government-sponsored Confucius Institutes, which have partnerships with many American universities.
“They're exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere,” Wray told senators at the time.
More than 60 research universities – including Indiana and Purdue universities – that are members of the Association of American Universities received a combined $23.3 billion in federal funding for research and development projects in 2016, the last year for which data are available, according to Pedro Ribeiro, the AAU's vice president of communications. Of that total, $4.6 billion came from two departments – Defense and Energy – that would be covered by Banks' bill.
“We look forward to working with Rep. Banks and to provide him with some feedback on the legislation and to work with Congress generally on what we know is an incredibly important issue about security threats,” Ribeiro said Tuesday in a phone interview.
“It is something that our universities care a lot about and have been working very hard on with the federal government,” he said.