Congress

HASC Republicans air concerns over foreign students conducting DOD research

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Lawmakers are ready to consider legislation that would bar Chinese students from working on Defense Department research projects, but scientists are hesitant.

"Having an understanding of who is working on these projects, and if there's any foreign nationals working on Department of Defense-funded research projects, we need to get our arms around these problems," Ranking Member Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) said during a House Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities hearing March 11.

Stefanik's comments come as the research community reacts to the recent arrest of Harvard chemistry department chair and nanotechnology specialist Charles M. Leiber on charges that he lied to investigators about accepting funding from China and about his involvement in China's Thousand Talent's Plan.

"We are implementing measures to gather more information about who is doing research on the DOD dime," Griffin, DOD's undersecretary for research and engineering responded, "but when we identify these people whom we believe to be a small percentage of the total research community, to us this is evidence that the system is actually working."

Griffin said there are likely unknown bad actors that need to be excised, but it's more consequential that the U.S. remains a place where other countries want to send people to work and be educated -- and the worry should be when that stops.

"This is the country where other people want to send their kids to be educated. It should worry us if we are not the people that others are coming after because then we don't matter," Griffin said.

This question about the possible damaging effects of recruiting international students has long been percolating among DOD research leaders.

Steven Walker, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's director, said it was a "problem" that fewer international students were coming to get educated and do research in the U.S. during the Center for Strategic and International Studies' National Security Innovation Partnership Conference Sept. 23.

At the same event, Lisa Porter, the Defense Department's deputy undersecretary for research and engineering, said the U.S. should "double down" on international recruitment -- including Chinese students.

"If the Chinese want to send their best people here, great. Let them stay," she said. "We should want people to come here and stay; that should be our goal. We should double down on that goal."

Army acquisition head Bruce Jette said during the March 11 hearing that he learned the service had twice as many Chinese students at different universities as American on payroll -- which was out of the Army's control. He noted that U.S. institutions that receive research funding are responsible for assigning students to different projects, and they are subject to anti-discrimination laws.

"So they couldn't exclude the Chinese students and I'm trying to do that," Jette said. In his testimony he noted that he was looking for help from Congress for ways to allow the Army to have more control over which students are assigned to do research on sensitive projects.

Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) echoed Stefanik's sentiments telling the panel " I am not going to continue supporting the funding of Beijing's research and development" and that "we need to draw a hard line" in considering legislation that would restrict talent program enrollment.

Griffin said the Thousand Talent Programs can be "highly suspect" but U.S. needs to be careful not "to become our adversary in the process of remaining ahead" while trying to uproot espionage and illicit technology transfer but Waltz contended that more needed to be done.

"We have to be cognizant that every single Chinese student, professor you name it is violating Chinese [intelligence laws] to not provide whatever is asked for," Waltz said. "So they have no choice, they can be the greatest people that we've ever known and wonderful and willing, but their families are held at risk should they not provide [the information]."

About the Author

Lauren C. Williams is senior editor for FCW and Defense Systems, covering defense and cybersecurity.

Prior to joining FCW, Williams was the tech reporter for ThinkProgress, where she covered everything from internet culture to national security issues. In past positions, Williams covered health care, politics and crime for various publications, including The Seattle Times.

Williams graduated with a master's in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park and a bachelor's in dietetics from the University of Delaware. She can be contacted at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @lalaurenista.

Click here for previous articles by Wiliams.


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