DoD pledges to protect department-funded research at U.S. universities

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American universities are getting another level of defense against foreign threats, as Congress recently added language to the annual National Defense Authorization Act that would establish an initiative to protect university researchers from adversarial foreign influence.

The initiative, pushed by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and outlined in Section 1286 of the final version of the fiscal 2019 legislation, orders the Department of Defense and other government entities to collaborate with universities to support the protection of intellectual property, people and technologies on DOD-funded university research projects.

The provision also makes a nod to workforce development, asking schools to do more to retain domestic talent in relevant scientific and engineering fields. Jennifer Poulakidas, vice president of congressional and governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU), said her organization will encourage talent retention. Land grant universities typically receive significant amounts of DOD research funding.

“We need to find ways to support the great talent, both domestic and international, in our universities,” she said.

The initiative, she said, will help formalize that support.

The provision, as it appears in the final version of the legislation, replaces a proposal in the original House version of the bill that mentioned several U.S. adversaries by name. The previous language would have required every applicant seeking funds for educational or academic training and research to certify that they’ve never been involved with a foreign talent or expert recruitment program of Russia, Iran, North Korea or China.

That version of the language would have had radically different consequences, Poulakidas said. The new language won’t limit researchers, she said.

Other university associations have weighed in, sharing support for the amendment.

“For the U.S. to maintain its global scientific and technological preeminence, basic research must remain open and collaborative. This new initiative will play a pivotal role in convening key stakeholders to find workable solutions for existing and future threats,” said American Association of Universities (AAU) President Mary Sue Coleman in a statement.

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