GOP Senators Urge Justice Department to Scrap Amnesty Program That Benefits China

Eight Republican senators are calling on the Department of Justice (DOJ) to scrap a proposed amnesty program that would allow U.S.-based researchers to disclose previous foreign funding without facing penalty or persecution.

Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), Todd Young (R-Ind.), and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are leading the effort to scrap the proposed program.

In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, the senators said their concerns are based in part on a 2019 bipartisan report (pdf) released by Portman as then chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that detailed China’s efforts to steal U.S. research through its “talent recruitment programs.”

The report, titled “Threats to the U.S. Research Enterprise: China’s Talent Recruitment Plans,” found that starting in the late 1990s, China began recruiting U.S.-based scientists and researchers and incentivizing them to transfer U.S. taxpayer-funded intellectual property to China for China’s own economic and military gain.

American taxpayers contribute more than $150 billion each year to scientific research in the United States, according to the report, and had been unwittingly funding the rise of China’s economy and military over the last two decades while federal agencies have done little to stop it.

In their letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, the senators argued that the United States must take “reasonable steps” to protect taxpayer-funded research from theft and from being weaponized against U.S. long-term interests.

“America’s successful research enterprise is built on reciprocity, integrity, and transparency,” the senators wrote.

“These values foster a free exchange of ideas and ensure that researchers and institutions receive the benefit of hard work. As a result, America attracts the best and brightest.  It needs to stay that way. But the United States must also take reasonable steps to protect taxpayer-funded research from theft, diversion, and ultimately weaponization against our own long-term national interests.  This is a complex problem, but an amnesty program rewarding individuals who broke federal law to steal U.S. taxpayer-funded research is simply not the answer.”

The senators also noted that the DOJ had not properly consulted with the relevant Inspectors General from large grant-making bodies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health before considering the amnesty program.

They asked Garland to provide them with a briefing detailing the scope, nature, and timeline of DOJ’s amnesty program no later than May 12, 2021.

Since 2019, federal prosecutors have brought more than a dozen criminal cases against academics accused of lying about receiving Chinese government funding or lying about their affiliation with the Chinese military.

However, in January, the Wall Street Journal reported that President Joe Biden’s Justice Department is now considering the amnesty program which would allow U.S. academics to disclose their past foreign funding without fear of punishment.

“We applaud federal prosecutors for bringing more than a dozen criminal cases against researchers and professors who allegedly stole intellectual property or failed to disclose partnerships with foreign governments, including with the People’s Republic of China (PRC),” the senators continued.

“We are concerned about the effect that this amnesty program will have on those ongoing criminal cases and the signal that it sends to future researchers contemplating breaking U.S. law to steal research or hide affiliations with foreign governments or militaries.”