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H.R. 1678: Protect Our Universities Act of 2019

If China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea are trying to use spies at colleges to gain an edge on American technology and research, what steps should be taken?

Context

Often-hostile nations such as China and Russia have used spies and informants at U.S. universities to gain an edge on what top colleges are developing in research, science, and technology.

The FBI has begun monitoring them, but institutions such as the Chinese military are believed to have benefitted from the intelligence.

What the legislation does

The Protect Our Universities Act aims to crack down on this issue, by:

  • Requiring exchange students from four nations — China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia — to obtain a waiver after a background check from the Director of National Intelligence before participating in any “sensitive research projects.”
  • Create a list of such “sensitive research projects” to be continually maintained by the Department of Education.
  • Ban technology created by certain foreign companies such as the Chinese telecommunications and cell phone corporations Huawei and ZTE from being used in these American research projects.

It was introduced in the House on March 12 as bill number H.R. 1678, by Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN3). The companion version was introduced in the Senate several months later on June 18 as bill number S. 1879, by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO).

What supporters say

Supporters argue the bill is a necessary national security protection, to ensure that American colleges and universities don’t unwittingly become pawns of often-hostile foreign governments.

“Foundational research for key U.S. defense technologies lacks the proper safeguards at our institutions of higher education. Adversarial companies, often influenced by foreign governments, are eager to take advantage of U.S. technological advances and vibrant university research efforts,” Rep. Banks said in a press release. “Countries like China may use subversive tactics to gain footholds in major STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] programs in U.S. universities to create a pipeline of data and information back to the mainland.”

“We must get tough against these covert threats on college campuses and limit the effectiveness of their information-gathering missions,” Rep. Banks continued. “Clear-eyed vigilance is essential if America and our allies are to remain free from Beijing’s influence and espionage.”

What opponents say

Some are concerned that such a move could throw the baby out with the bathwater, and harm the development of scientific advancements with the best talent from around the globe.

“Over the decades, the American scientific landscape has benefited greatly from the important contributions of foreign nationals,” the National Institutes of Health’s Advisory Committee to the Director wrote in a report last year. “For example, since 2000, 39% of U.S. Nobel prizes in Physics, Chemistry, and Medicine have been awarded to foreign-born scientists.”

“On a broader scale, American institutions and universities are shaped by foreign trainees, investigators, and employees, and U.S. scientists routinely collaborate productively with investigators in foreign countries,” the report continued. “These interactions are critical to scientific advances and are vital to maintain.”

Odds of passage

The House version has attracted five bipartisan cosponsors: four Republicans and one Democrat. It awaits a potential vote in either the House Education and Labor, Science and Technology, or Permanent Select Intelligence Committees.

The Senate version has not yet attracted any cosponsors, although it’s been pending for several months less than the House version. It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Last year, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI8) tried including a similar provision in a must-pass defense authorization bill, but a mostly toothless compromise provision was included instead. That new language mandated the Department of Defense “evaluate” the issue, but with no concrete policy changes.

Last updated Jul 15, 2019. View all GovTrack summaries.

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