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U.S. universities fight Senate innovation bill targeting foreign gifts to faculty

The shape of U.S. research is at stake as Congress tries to reconcile competing versions of a massive bill, 2 years in the making, aimed at bolstering U.S. competitiveness with China in research and high-tech manufacturing.

The bills would not only authorize spending hundreds of billions of additional dollars on research, but also set out new policies on the government’s approach to supporting science. One controversial provision in the Senate version, the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), would change how the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy’s science office distribute their research dollars by geographic region.
Today’s story examines another Senate provision, one that would impose new requirements on individual faculty members and staff to report any foreign gifts. Yesterday, we looked at proposed changes in U.S. immigration rules aimed at welcoming more foreign scientists and engineers, part of the America COMPETES Act passed earlier this year by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Attention all research faculty and staff: That birthday present from your uncle in France must be reported to the office of sponsored research. And, by the way, the details may become public.

Senior research administrators at nearly 500 U.S. colleges and universities could find themselves writing such memos if Congress retains a requirement for reporting individual gifts from foreign sources that is included in a Senate version of a massive innovation bill now being negotiated by lawmakers. But higher education lobbyists, alarmed at the administrative burden and the chilling effect the provision might have on all international collaborations, are waging a last-minute fight to prevent that from happening.

The Senate provision, which has gone almost unnoticed, would require universities to collect information on “any gifts received from a foreign source [by] faculty, professional staff, and others engaged in research.” The information would go into a “searchable database” the institution must create and maintain; institutions that violate the rules would be subject to fines of up to $50,000. The provision applies to any U.S. institution receiving more than $5 million a year in federal research funding.

The language, authored by Senator Richard Burr (R–NC), is aimed at preventing hostile foreign governments from stealing the fruits of U.S. taxpayer-funded research by enticing researchers with gifts. Burr and other lawmakers believe U.S. universities aren’t sufficiently vigilant against the threat, which they say is especially acute from China.

But a coalition of leading research universities is trying to get that language removed or significantly amended. “It is duplicative, unworkable … and counterproductive to both our national research enterprise and to national security,” Barbara Snyder, president of the 65-member Association of American Universities (AAU), wrote in a 15 June letter to key members of the conference committee negotiating the final bill.

One of her major concerns is that there’s no threshold for the value of any gift that must be reported. The House-passed bill sets a floor of $50,000, which AAU says is more reasonable. (AAU also prefers the House language because it would narrow the universe of institutions subject to the reporting requirement to the roughly 200 that carry out more than $50 million a year in research.)

The Senate provision also casts too broad a net, according to the AAU letter. “Is the intent to cover all faculty and staff, no matter how distant their relationship to anything that could raise security concerns?” it asks. Snyder says the provision also doesn’t specify whether the provision is limited to gifts related to the employee’s professional activities or to any present they receive.

“It’s not clear what they are asking for,” says Marcia Smith, associate vice chancellor for research administration at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). “Am I covered?” asks Smith, whose job is to make sure UCLA complies with all federal rules pertaining to its $1.5 billion research portfolio. “And if my best friend, who just moved to England, sends me a gift, do I need to disclose it?”

The U.S. government already requires anyone applying for a federal grant to report all foreign and domestic sources of research support, AAU notes. And the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has spent the past 3 years developing policies to standardize that reporting across all agencies. In addition, the Department of Education already requires institutions to report any foreign gifts of at least $250,000, a threshold the Senate language would lower to $50,000 in another section of its bill.

“It is unclear exactly what additional information [the Senate language on gifts to individuals] is intended are elicit,” Snyder writes, “or why that information would be valuable.” Burr declined to comment on the rationale for the USICA language.

The Department of Education would be required to issue rules defining the scope of the provision and how it would be implemented. Senate Democrats negotiating the final bill haven’t taken a public stance on the language.

University administrators see the Senate language as an unfunded mandate—more work without additional resources. They also worry its enactment could push U.S. academic researchers to abandon all international collaborations to avoid running afoul of the new requirements.

That would be a high price to pay, warns Peter Michelson, a physicist and senior administrator at Stanford University. “The last thing we should be doing is discouraging those interactions,” he says.

Source: Science Mag