Lawmakers Investigate NIH Over Chinese Espionage Aimed at US Medical Research

May 2, 2020 Updated: May 2, 2020

Two members of Congress have demanded an explanation from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) over possible Chinese intellectual property theft at U.S.-funded medical research institutions.

Reps. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) and Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) have launched an investigation into the NIH’s handling of cases of scientists who were recipients of U.S. grants but failed to disclose their ties to the Chinese communist regime.

In a letter (pdf) sent on April 30 to Director of the NIH Francis Collins, obtained exclusively by the Washington Free Beacon, the congressmen demanded Collins explain the procedures for taking disciplinary action against researchers that may have received grants but failed to disclose their ties to a foreign government.

Director of the NIH’s extramural research program Michael Lauer revealed to Science Magazine that the Chinese Communist Party had infiltrated the NIH grant program to obtain information about proposed U.S. grants. Based on this information, Chinese institutions set up “shadow-labs” in China that mirrored U.S. labs in order to replicate “the stolen NIH-funded research.” Lauer did not provide more details about these practices, but mentioned the Thousand Talents Program (TTP) in the context of China’s intellectual property theft.

In August 2018, “the NIH launched investigations into 250 NIH researchers with suspicious foreign ties,” the letter stated, referencing Lauer’s interview.

Epoch Times Photo
Scientist Christopher Kistler checks on experiments in AMBR250 bio-reactors in a laboratory at the Merck company facilities in Kenilworth, N.J., on Dec. 18, 2014. (Mel Evans/AP Photo)

One way to identify scientists with ties to the Chinese regime was to check if they list their dual affiliation when publishing scientific papers, and scrutinizing those who list their Chinese affiliation first, Lauer said.

The NIH investigation uncovered five cases of researchers sending confidential information to China at just one research center, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center of the University of Texas.

One scientist sent confidential research data to China “in exchange for $75,000 and a one-year appointment under China’s TTP. Another scientist from the same institution offered to smuggle research materials to China, “(if I can figure out how to get a dozen of frozen DNA onto an airplane),” the letter says.

Both congressmen said that the best way to counter the Chinese Communist Party’s espionage is to remove wrongdoers, and commended the NIH for their investigations.

The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs launched a bipartisan investigation into China’s talent recruitment plans and found that since 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 … while federal agencies have done little to stop it.”

The subcommittee produced a report on threats to U.S. research enterprises posed by the Thousand Talents Plan. The report said that the response of the FBI and other federal agencies to this threat was “slow” and the FBI started reacting to it only in mid-2018, according to a statement.

The report also provided case studies of individuals who maintained undisclosed ties to institutions directed by the Chinese Communist Party. Among them were two scientists, one working for a U.S. medical school, the second for a U.S. medical research institution, both of whom received NIH funding. But they did not disclose that they were also professors at Chinese universities and both received grants from the National Science Foundation of China.

The report includes seven such cases, “all of which involve a researcher failing to disclose a financial or contractual relationship with the Chinese government,” lawmakers said in the letter. “But none of the case studies resulted in immediate, decisive disciplinary actions by NIH.”

The NIH identified more than 130 individuals who were suspected of not disclosing “foreign funding,” and determined that administrative action was needed for 66 of them. “But in most cases, the NIH took no action,” the letter said.