Senator Hawley Takes Steps to Stop Foreign Theft of Sensitive American Research with New Bill, NDAA Amendment

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Today Senator Josh Hawley introduced the Protect Our Universities Act of 2019 to safeguard sensitive, national security-related academic research from Chinese, Russian, and Iranian intelligence services. The text will also be submitted as a Senate amendment to the FY 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which is currently going through markups in the House and Senate.

The bill requires research students from these nations to undergo a background screening by the U.S. government if they wish to participate in “sensitive research projects,” as designated by a new task force led by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The bill also prohibits sensitive research projects from using technologies developed by companies like Huawei, ZTE, Kaspersky, and others.

“America’s universities cultivate the free and open exchange of ideas and information, all with the intent of making the world a better place. Unfortunately, they are also key targets of espionage and intellectual property theft by not only China, but Russia and Iran,” Senator Josh Hawley said. “For too long, these countries have sent students to our universities to collect sensitive research that they can later use to develop capabilities that threaten our national security. This bill takes much-needed steps to ensure our research stays out of the hands of foreign adversaries who are proactively rooting for our failure. Our scientific exchange must not be exploited to advance the destructive agendas of Beijing, Moscow, or Tehran.”

Congressman Jim Banks (IN-03), who introduced similar legislation in the House, said, “National security and Intelligence Community leaders have continually warned us about students from adversarial nations infiltrating our universities to engage in federally-funded foundational research. We cannot afford to ignore this threat any longer. President Trump’s Executive Order effectively banning Huawei products was a great step forward, but we must do more to protect our nation’s sensitive research from adversarial regimes. I thank Senator Hawley for joining me in this initiative.”


One frontier in the U.S. competition with China, Russia, and Iran is these countries’ exploitation of the American higher education system.

The sciences are a particularly vulnerable setting for foreign espionage and IP theft, with Chinese, Russian, and Iranian students able to gain access to research programs funded by the U.S. government and which support U.S. government programs. Although some universities have begun taking action – for example, MIT recently announced it would end partnerships with Huawei and ZTE – many remain targets and are slow to respond.

Examples in the news:

The “Protect Our Universities Act of 2019” would:

  • Establish a DHS-led interagency task force to identify sensitive research projects occurring at institutions of higher education that are funded by task force member agencies and address “sensitive research topics,” as defined by the task force member agencies.
  • Require students from China, Russia, and Iran to undergo a background screening by the U.S. government if they wish to participate in a sensitive research project.
  • Minimize disruption to research activities at institutions of higher education and ensure these institutions are able to petition findings and contest outcomes of the screening process.
  • Prevent technology developed by companies like Huawei, ZTE, Kaspersky, and others from being used in sensitive research projects.