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Senate Reviews Bills to Address Competitiveness with China and Foreign Influence in U.S. Research

April 23, 2021

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Christa Wagner, Manager, Government Relations

Senators worked to address competitiveness with China during a committee mark up and bill introduction during the week of April 19. Separately, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee heard testimony from federal officials on April 22 regarding addressing foreign influence in U.S. biomedical research [refer to related story].

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Ranking Member Jim Risch (R-Idaho) led a full committee markup of their recently introduced bill to address international relations with China and protect U.S. national and economic security. The committee voted 21-1 during the April 21 markup to advance the Strategic Competition Act (S. 1169), which higher education organizations including the AAMC have expressed concerns over.

The AAMC joined the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and the American Council on Education in an April 20 letter opposing Sec. 138 of the bill, which would require the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to review any proposed gifts and contracts of $1 million or more to U.S. research institutions. CFIUS is an interagency committee led by the U.S. Department of the Treasury and established to review transactions between U.S. businesses and foreign entities.

“We want to be clear that U.S. higher education institutions are very concerned with preventing foreign entities from taking undue advantage of our institutions and federal research funding,” the associations stated.  

The associations added that the expansion of CFIUS’ role would “damage U.S. research and our economic competitiveness” by discouraging donors and research collaborators, hampering research investments in a time of great need, and adding additional burden to the CFIUS review process with a large influx of new proposals while CFIUS lacks the technical expertise to properly assess the threat posed by a proposed grant or contract for academic institutions.

“We don’t allow our politicians to take money from China. … There’s no reason why these important [academic] institutions … that are producing the future leaders of this country should have that kind of influence if indeed it is put there for malign purposes,” Risch stated at the start of the markup.

During the markup, Risch also added his hope that the Strategic Competition Act would proceed as a stand-alone bill through regular order, in reference to a separate competitiveness bill, the Endless Frontier Act (S. 1260), introduced by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) on April 21.

The Endless Frontier Act aims to bolster the United States’ global competitiveness through investments in innovation, technology, research and development, supply chains, and the STEM workforce. As outlined in the bill summary, the bill would authorize $100 billion over five years to a new Directorate for Technology and Innovation at the National Science Foundation (NSF) “focused on basic research, commercialization, and innovation related to key technology areas with geostrategic implications for the United States.” The bill establishes 10 initial areas of focus for the directorate, including artificial intelligence, natural disaster prevention or mitigation, and biotechnology, medical technology, genomics, and synthetic biology.

The directorate would be authorized to increase research spending at U.S. universities, especially historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions, and fund new scholarships and fellowships for trainees in the STEM workforce pipeline.

The bill would also establish a Supply Chain Resiliency and Crisis Response Program at the Department of Commerce “to monitor supply chain vulnerabilities and provide investments to diversify supply chains in critical products to the nation’s security.” This would include encouraging public-private partnerships to build domestic capacity and better respond to supply chain vulnerabilities due to pandemics, extreme weather events, and other national security threats.

The Endless Frontier Act would also authorize $10 billion to the Department of Commerce to establish regional technology hubs to increase innovation across the country, including to encourage new collaborations between the government, academia, and private industry.

The Endless Frontier Act is expected to be considered before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation during an April 28 executive session.

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