US universities fight Senate innovation bill targeting foreign gifts to faculty | Science

The shape of US research is aimed at consolidating US 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 the government’s approach to supporting science. One controversial provision in the Senate version, the US 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 foreign members and staff to report any foreign gifts. Yesterday, we looked at proposed changes in US immigration rules aimed at welcoming more foreign scientists and engineers, part of the American COMPETES Act passed earlier this year by the US House of Representatives.

All posts must be reported to the office of sponsored research. And, by the way, the details may become public.

Senior research administrators at 500 US colleges and universities could find themselves writing in the United States. But higher education lobbyists, alarmed at the administrative burden and the chilling effect of the provision have 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 the institution’s “searchable database” must create and maintain; institutions that violate the rules would be subject to fines of up to $ 50,000. The provision applies to any US 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 US taxpayer-funded research by enticing researchers with gifts. Burr and other lawmakers believe US universities are not vigilant against the threat, which they say is especially acute from China.

But the 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 is no threshold for 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 take more than $ 50 million a year in research.)

The Senate provision also casts too broad a net, according to the AAU letter. “Is there any security issues you need to address?” it asks. Snyder says the provision also does not specify whether the provision is limited.

“It’s not clear what they’re 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?”

AAU notes. The White House Office of Science and Technology 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.

“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.

Defining the scope of the provision and how it would be implemented. Senate Democrats negotiating the final bill have 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 US 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.

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