Congress wants to keep defense tech out of China’s hands. It wants universities to help.

Congress wants universities to keep what it calls “critical technologies” out of the hands of foreign governments. In this file photo a post-doctorate student from China is conducting research experiments in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Wyoming.
Congress wants universities to keep what it calls “critical technologies” out of the hands of foreign governments. In this file photo a post-doctorate student from China is conducting research experiments in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Wyoming. AP

Congress is poised to give the U.S. Department of Defense a lot more authority to force the country’s universities to keep what it calls “critical technologies” out of the hands of foreign governments.

Supporters of the bipartisan measure — now part of the final draft of the 2019 defense appropriations bill — say they’re targeting China and want U.S. universities to get with the program.

“As China continues to challenge United States hegemony, it is imperative that our institutions of higher education collaborate effectively with” the government to “ensure that sensitive, academic-rooted R&D is protected and is not being exported to near-peer competitors,” U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and six of his colleagues said in a July 18 letter to the House and Senate Armed Services committees advocating for the change.

The measure “would ensure an appropriate level of national security community involvement with universities that participate in DOD research,” added a group of 20 U.S. House members that includes two North Carolina Democratic congressmen, U.S. Reps. David Price of Chapel Hill and G.K. Butterfield of Wilson.

Stars and Stripes reported Monday that the appropriations bill itself is on track to pass soon, as the final draft is the fruit of a House-Senate conference committee. Advocacy groups like the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities and the Association of American Universities are supporting the technology provision.

The APLU and AAU between them count as members Duke University, N.C. State University and UNC-Chapel Hill, the Triangle’s big-three research institutions.

AAU President Mary Sue Coleman said in a press release that her group believes universities “share a responsibility with federal partners to ensure that the intellectual property and other proprietary information developed or housed at our universities are not susceptible to academic exfiltration, espionage or exploitation.”

Violators could lose funding

The House proposal didn’t define what it meant by “foreign talent or expert recruitment program,” but it’s heard calls this year to crack down on recruiting drives like China’s “1,000 Talents” program that encourage Chinese-born scholars to take academic jobs there.

APLU lobbyists complained in a memo that the lack of a definition made the House proposal a likely administrative nightmare. For “security and compliance reasons,” the government should “make such threats and programs transparent,” they said.

The bill, however, left it to the Defense Department to create and flesh out an “initiative to work with academic institutions [that] perform defense research and engineering activities.”

It should include an “information exchange forum” on security threats, training, help in sizing up whether researchers are linked to foreign governments and a chance to collaborate with “defense researchers and researchers in secure facilities,” the bill says.

But a key section of the bill requires the Defense Department to create “regulations and procedures” to “support the goals of the initiative,” and authorizes it to set up policies “to limit or prohibit” DOD funding “for institutions or individual researchers” who knowingly violate those rules.

It further tells DOD to get a move on. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis would owe Congress a report on the development of the program just four months after President Donald Trump signs the appropriations bill into law.

And despite the Cornyn letter’s focus on China, the bill doesn’t name any particular country as a target, including China.

Incident at Duke University

The move comes amid worries that Chinese researchers — particularly the legion of Chinese graduate students that figure so heavily in science and engineering programs at schools like Duke — are well-positioned to take home the latest and greatest technology in everything from cancer treatment to robotics and artificial intelligence.

A late-2000s incident at Duke figured prominently in U.S. House committee testimony that U.S. Rep Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said was about the risk that foreign governments “want to steal our technological secrets and scientific discoveries and use them for their own purposes.”

The Duke incident involved a Ph.D. student, Roupeng Liu, who studied and worked in the lab of electrical and computer engineering professor David Smith. The lab specializes in “metamaterials,” synthetics that display unusual properties, electrical and otherwise, not ordinarily found in nature.

Liu and Smith had a falling-out over the propriety of a collaboration with China-based researchers, notably the professor who in Liu’s undergraduate days introduced the student to metamaterials. After receiving his Ph.D., Liu went home to China and co-founded a business, the Kuang-Chi Group, that’s trying to develop the technology and has received support from the Chinese government.

Metamaterials are of interest to the military because there’s a chance they could have applications in stealth technology. Smith and one set of collaborators found that they could use it to “cloak” microwaves.

A 2009 paper that listed Liu and another Kuang-Chi co-founder, Duke statistical science Ph.D. Chunlin Ji, as lead co-authors claimed design-process advances that “offer a path toward [the] realization of some forms of cloaking at frequencies approaching the optical.” That’s science-speak for the potential of an invisibility cloak.

The 2009 paper wound up triggering complaints from the Defense Department because it also credited Liu’s undergraduate professor, who listed financial support from the Chinese government to go with the Smith lab’s defense-industry and U.S. Air Force grants.

Eventually, it also drew FBI attention. But the agency in a 2015 unclassified counterintelligence note acknowledged it couldn’t do anything because Smith’s lab “does not conduct restricted research” and there “were no rules against or restrictions on the lab’s collaborative research efforts.” It nonetheless said Smith had “risked his research” in part by “being too trusting of his scientific relationship with Liu.”

The incident also inspired a chapter in a 2017 book by former Bloomberg News reporter Daniel Golden called “Spy Schools.” It largely echoed the conclusions of the FBI’s 2015 report, and offered background on the disputes that emerged in the Smith lab.

But it conceded that Liu and Ji were the prime movers behind the 2009 paper, a detail consistent with the reality at Duke and other universities in the area that in any research lab, Ph.D. students do a lot of the work and supply a fair number of the ideas.

Duke administrators have no quarrel with the provision Cornyn and his allies added to the defense-spending bill.

“We think it is important for universities to work together with the government to develop policies that protect national security and intellectual property while also maintaining the open exchange of ideas that is essential for the advancement of science and research,” said Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg