Science & Tech

House Democrats Oppose Prohibitions on Research Funding Connected to China

Manufacturing associate Theodore Szmurlo views a cell sample in the cell culture room where they are working on developing a vaccine for the Zika virus at Protein Sciences Inc. in Meriden, Conn., in 2016. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Their proposed funding would fail to safeguard research from Chinese espionage.

The Republican Study Committee (RSC) — the largest group of conservatives in the House of Representatives — has led the GOP charge against the $3.5 trillion budget-reconciliation package proposed by President Biden, this month rolling out a memo listing more than 40 of the measure’s flaws.

Most of those complaints reflect the GOP’s standard approach on domestic issues, such as criticism of vaccine mandates and the president’s climate agenda. One aspect that hasn’t received much attention is the reconciliation package’s inclusion of $11 billion in funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF) — supplementing a multi-billion-dollar bill currently making its way through Congress with bipartisan support — that is focused on R&D to ramp up our ability to compete with China. The provision that provided additional NSF funding was called the Endless Frontier Act, and it was combined with a number of other measures, reaching a total of $282 billion when the Senate passed it (by then known as the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, or USICA) in June.

As RSC chairman Jim Banks sees it, the funding for the NSF, though advertised as necessary to counter China, should worry rather than reassure proponents of a tougher U.S. posture toward Beijing. “The RSC was the first to sound the alarm about the Democrats’ Endless Frontier Act and the billions that it would give to the CCP,” he told National Review in a statement. Banks pointed to the failure of the reconciliation bill’s provision to include safeguards against IP theft for the research produced via the new NSF funding: “I’m not surprised that Democrats attempted to sneak in the worst parts of that legislation, giving $11 billion in handouts to woke universities with absolutely no guardrails preventing that funding from going straight to the CCP.”

The version of the reconciliation bill in which that funding appeared was put forward a few weeks ago, and Democratic lawmakers could still make changes before an eventual floor vote on reconciliation. But this research-funding measure, though much smaller than other parts of the multi-trillion-dollar budget-reconciliation proposal, is still large.

Indeed, the research-funding measure demonstrates that, when it comes to America’s ability to compete with China, Democratic proposals still miss the mark.

USICA would fund U.S. R&D efforts to the tune of some $80 billion. That legislation passed the Senate earlier this year, and a similar package is now under consideration by the House. With Congress focused on the president’s massive spending proposals, however, it’s likely that this smaller version of USICA, embedded within the reconciliation package, will win adoption first.

But the problems with USICA’s funding for the NSF are the same as those in the reconciliation proposal — namely, that Congress has failed to take steps to protect any research from Chinese espionage.

Speaking to NR in July, American Enterprise Institute scholar Derek Scissors advocated safeguards that were included in an RSC-proposed alternative to USICA. “These are the absolutely minimum guardrails: Don’t put money into research and then have no penalties for the Chinese stealing it — which is where we are now.” That legislation stands no chance of passing under the Democratic House majority, but it suggests the China legislation that Republicans will probably move to enact the next time they’re in the majority.

Beyond the insufficient security guarantees, there are other worrying aspects of the Democratic stance on R&D funding to counter China.

An amendment added to the legislation in September stipulated that none of the funding could be granted to entities listed under the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act — essentially blocking potential NSF funding to organizations involved in China’s forced-labor practices.

The inclusion of that provision is promising, but it’s unfortunate that all but three Democrats voted against it during a September 9 hearing of the House Committee on Science, Technology, and Commerce — which is where the forced-labor prohibition was tacked on to a science-funding bill that was later added to the reconciliation measure.

In the end the amendment, which Representative Anthony Gonzales (R., Ohio) authored, passed by only a single vote. A spokesperson for Representative Charlie Crist of Florida, one of the Democrats who voted for the amendment, explained his reasoning in a message to NR: “While he knows there are already safeguards in place for this, he wanted to reaffirm his belief that American grant dollars should reflect not only American interests but American values. The American people do not want their tax dollars supporting the slavery and genocide of Uyghurs.”

The committee’s Democrats, including Crist and the two other holdouts, also voted down another amendment, put forward by Representative Mike Garcia (R., Calif.), to prohibit the NSF from using funds for research in China or on projects involving entities “owned or controlled, directly or indirectly, by the People’s Republic of China.”

This sort of anti-PRC provision should be standard practice for any research funding, given that 1) Beijing uses tech advances by nominally private firms to develop new military capabilities and that 2) there’s increasing evidence that COVID-19 likely originated in a lab leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a state-run research institute.

Congressional Democrats are focused on bulking up the NSF, which doesn’t seem as capable of developing badly needed critical new technologies as, say, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. But they aren’t nearly as interested in ensuring that American research can’t be used to the Chinese Communist Party’s gain.

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