This article is published in the August 2023 issue.

House Defense Policy Legislation Contains Proposed Onerous Reporting Requirements for Scientists Performing Defense Research

by Brian Mosley, Associate Director, Government Affairs

In the middle of July, the House of Representatives passed their version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Also known as the defense policy bill, this is yearly, must-pass legislation that covers policy and spending requirements at the Defense Department. The bill included a number of controversial amendments around social issues included to garner the support of harder line members of the House Republican caucus. The bill also includes an amendment creating an onerous new reporting requirement for anyone engaging in research with the DOD.

Proposed by Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN), the amendment would require any researcher (which is defined broadly and could include undergrads) taking part in DOD funded research to disclose, on a publicly accessible federal government website:

  • their date and place of birth, nationality, and immigration status if a foreign national;
  • education from undergrad onwards;
  • professional and employment background;
  • all research and publications (publications is defined very broadly and includes personal writings);
  • professional society affiliations, both US and foreign; and
  • past or current involvement in a foreign talent recruitment program.

PIs would have to disclose this information at the time of application and within 90 days of a new person coming onto the project. Additionally, each PI would yearly need to disclose, “any direct, indirect, formal, or informal collaboration that…either independently or as the lead of the covered program, [the PI] enters into with any third party persons or entities, including the identity and nationality of the third party collaborator, the nature of the collaboration (whether direct, indirect, formal or informal) and the terms and conditions of such collaboration.” Banks’ rationale for such heavy-handed rules is to respond to and stop the Chinese government’s attempts to exfiltrate the results of federally funded research. Beyond the data disclosure, there is no other obvious mechanism included to mitigate any potential research security risks.

Science Magazine covered the subject and quoted Alex Aiken, of Stanford University and Vice Chair of the CRA Government Affairs Committee. “Yes, research security is a real issue,” says Alex Aiken, “But this seems excessive. What purpose would it serve? And why should it all be made public?”

In addition to the burden, there are concerns that such a reporting requirement could give away information on the state of the federal defense research system. As Dr. Aiken said, “Public disclosure means foreign governments can use the information, too…And I’m sure those countries would learn a great deal about the network of connections of the U.S. research community from these disclosures.”

CRA is highly concerned about this language being included in the NDAA. Research security is a serious issue, and agencies like DOD and NSF have been working with the research community to identify ways to mitigate those risks without damaging the collaborative research ecosystem that has been so immensely productive for the nation. It’s not clear that language like this will strengthen those efforts — instead it appears to add a remarkably onerous burden on all researchers working on Defense problems without providing any mechanism for actually mitigating risks. CRA plans to work with our friends and allies, both in Congress and the policy community, to lay out the case that this language is likely to cause more harm than good to the nation’s defense research community.

The defense policy bill passed the full House of Representatives last week. We now will wait to see the Senate version of the NDAA; it is expected to be made public soon with an eye to passing through the chamber next week. While the Senate version is unlikely to contain similar language — and our understanding is that the DOD has also indicated it has issues with it as well — ultimately both chambers will have to agree upon the provisions that will end up in the final bill, and the Banks language will be a part of that negotiation. CRA will continue to track this matter and will report on any new developments.