N.I.H. investigators and the FBI are looking at theft of biomedical research at institutions across the country, largely by researchers of Chinese descent, both Chinese-Americans and Chinese nationals.
According to the NY Times in an article posted on November 4th, nearly 200 investigations are ongoing across the United States, looking into the activities of researchers that have significant contact between the US and China.
The National Institutes of Health (N.I.H.) and the FBI have begun a vast effort to root out scientists who they say are stealing biomedical research for other countries from institutions across the United States. Almost all of the incidents they uncovered and that are under investigation involve scientists of Chinese descent, including naturalized American citizens, allegedly stealing for China.
“Here is the bones and meet of what you want,” wrote one researcher in a misspelled email to researchers in China. Attached was a confidential research proposal, according to administrators at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Several members of the Chinese faculty and researchers under investigation are affiliated with the Chinese governments Thousand Talents Program, which Beijing established a decade ago to recruit scientists to Chinese universities. According to the FBI website, members are offered “competitive salaries, state-of-art research facilities and honorific titles.”
The investigations have fanned fears that China is exploiting the relative openness of the American scientific system to engage in wholesale economic espionage. At the same time, the scale of the dragnet has sent a tremor through the ranks of biomedical researchers, some of whom say ethnic Chinese scientists are being unfairly targeted for scrutiny as Washington’s geopolitical competition with Beijing intensifies.
In August, Feng Tao, 48, a chemist at the University of Kansas (KU) known as Franklin, was indicted on four counts of fraud for allegedly failing to disclose a full-time appointment at a Chinese university while receiving federal funds.
His lawyer, Peter R. Zeidenberg, declined to comment on Dr. Tao’s case but suggested that prosecutors were targeting academics nationwide who had made simple mistakes. “Professors, they get their summers off,” he said in an interview. “Oftentimes they will take appointments in China for the summer. They don’t believe they have to report that.”
In an article published on Inside Higher Ed, “To protect faculty from unfounded accusations, it is essential that American universities orient their scholars about the FBI’s concerns and the need for full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. To date, public reports don’t make clear that KU gave this vital information to Professor Tao” said Robert Daly, an analyst who has been tracking these issues and is the director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States.
Christopher Wray, director of the F.B.I., told the Senate Judiciary Committee in July that China is using “nontraditional collectors” of intelligence, and is attempting to “steal their way up the economic ladder at our expense.”
To combat further theft at M.D. Anderson, administrators are tightening controls to make data less freely available. People can no longer use personal laptops on the wireless network. The center has barred the use of flash drives and disabled USB ports. And all of its employees’ computers can now be monitored remotely.
The N.I.H. is clamping down, too. It recommends that reviewers of grant applications have limited ability to download or print them. Those traveling to certain regions should use loaner computers, it says, and academic institutions should be alert to frequent foreign travel by scientists, or frequent publishing with colleagues outside the United States.
The National Science Foundation has commissioned an independent scientific advisory group to recommend ways of balancing openness and security, and warned employees that they are prohibited from participating in programs like China’s Thousand Talents Program.