Before Investing More in R&D, We Must Secure Research Institutions From Outside Threats

The Senate is expected to pass the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 before breaking for the Memorial Day recess. The bipartisan package would authorize large funding increases for federal research and development. While the bill’s future in the House of Representatives is unclear, the ongoing debate on Capitol Hill has revealed strong bipartisan support for protecting American campuses and research centers from nation-state threats. 

The centerpiece of the legislation is the Endless Frontier Act, bipartisan legislation sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and 13 co-sponsors. The act would expand the mission of the National Science Foundation to include funding for technological innovation and authorize large funding increases for NSF. The package also includes more than $50 billion in appropriations to promote the American semiconductor sector, including to pay for new programs authorized by the National Defense Authorization Act in December. A central purpose of the overall package is to compete with the Chinese government’s industrial policy and plans to achieve technological superiority in the coming years.

But a key question about the legislation as it advances on Capitol Hill is whether the final package will include new security requirements to protect research institutions from ongoing nation-state espionage exposed by recent bipartisan investigations led by Ohio Sen. Rob Portman. Failing to require colleges and universities to update their security measures could allow foreign adversaries to steal sensitive information about the innovative new technologies funded by new federal R&D investment.

The Biden administration and congressional leaders have a unique opportunity to achieve bipartisan consensus by pairing historic federal investments in research and development with security measures to protect American innovations from nation-state espionage. But they must overcome resistance from American universities that are opposed to new reporting requirements and potential restrictions on foreign students studying in the United States.

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