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Know Your Researcher – Academic Espionage – Trade Secrets Theft

Last month I wrote a blog post titled, “Is the Chinese Government-Sanctioned “Thousand Talents Rewards Program” a Vehicle for Trade Secrets Thieves.”

Well, along the same lines, a recent push by the FBI and the U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH) is taking steps to urge research medical centers to be proactive about screening and driving out foreign researchers that are in violation of various full-disclosure guidelines.

It was recently reported (Houston Chronicle) that three (3) senior (ethnically Chinese) researchers at the University of Texas (UT) MD Anderson Cancer Center were forced out as a result of full disclosure violations.

“A small but significant number of individuals are working with government sponsorship to exfiltrate intellectual property that has been created with the support of U.S. taxpayers, private donors, and industry collaborators,” Dr. Peter Pisters, the center’s president, said in a statement on Sunday (NY Times.)

“At risk is America’s internationally acclaimed system of funding biomedical research, which is based on the principles of trust, integrity, and merit.”

WHY AND HOW DID THESE INVESTIGATIONS / TERMINATIONS COME ABOUT?

Essentially, since 2015, the FBI has been urging U.S. academic research institutions to be more proactive about screening and monitoring the researchers admitted into their programs including notifying the FBI if they become aware of suspicious behavior.

The FBI’s Counterintelligence Division’s Strategic Partnership Program argued in a 2015 handout that the program allows China to “benefit from years of scientific research conducted in the United States and “severely impacts the U.S. economy.”

In 2017, the FBI requested and received email communications on hard drives pertaining to certain academic research institution employees.

In 2018, the U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH) sent out letters to 10,000 academic institutions across the U.S. that receive NIH funding asking them to take steps to mitigate the risk of IP diversion by ensuring compliance with NIH screening guidelines.

As a direct follow-up, NIH sent letters (again last year) to certain institutions identifying specific researchers that should be investigated. (The implication here is that the FBI provided the NIH with the names of individuals and areas of concern the institutions were urged to look into.)

According to press reports, this appears to be the first public announcement of terminations as a result of an NIH inquiry.

“The new developments are linked to a sweeping effort launched last year by NIH (Science Magazine) to address growing U.S. government fears that foreign nations, particularly China, are taking unfair advantage of federally funded research.”

ADDITIONAL NEWS REPORT EXCERPTS

NIH asserts several researchers had “active and well-supported research programs in China,” or financial ties to foreign firms, that they did not disclose.

Sample of Specific Allegations (Science Magazine):

“Four [4] of the five [5] NIH letters to MD Anderson contain very specific allegations of what NIH terms “serious” rule violations.

“One [1] letter, for instance, asserts that a researcher had violated peer-review confidentiality by emailing to a scientist in China an NIH grant application marked as containing “proprietary/privileged information.”

“A different letter alleges that a researcher had shared “detailed information on as many as 8 NIH applications” with a daughter.

“Three [3] of the letters specifically mention a researcher’s potential involvement in China’s Thousand Talents Program, an effort started in 2008 to establish ties with ethnically Chinese scientists working outside of China by offering funding, salary, and other research support.

“On 11 December 2017, FBI received the cancer center’s permission to obtain information from employee email accounts—as many as 23 accounts, according to sources familiar with the matter—which MD Anderson officials provided on hard drives.

“MD Anderson’s investigations mentioned that three [3] of the five [5] professors likely were involved in the Thousand Talents program, none of whom had disclosed the affiliation.”

KNOW YOUR RESEARCHER / SCHOLAR

What additional proactive steps is MD Anderson Cancer Center and the U.S. government now taking to mitigate IP diversion risk?

Biomedical Research Center:

  • Staff traveling internationally will need to use loaner laptops and phones
  • Restricted use of USB devices
  • Prohibit researchers from having labs at two locations (domestic or foreign) a.k.a. “Shadow Labs”

U.S. Government:

The U.S. has started to cancel visas (in some cases) of visiting scholars (NY Times) or restricting travel into the U.S. to single entry visa.

It has been reported that FBI agents sometimes ask for fifteen (15) years of travel history (NY Times) (including phone numbers and addresses) before approving a single-entry visa, which some scholars, reportedly, find intrusive.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The coordinated actions by NIH and the FBI are to be applauded and should be duplicated by other government agencies who provide funding to private research institutions, (i.e., defense, energy, etc.)

It appears that what underlies MD Anderson’s prompt response to NIH requests for follow-up investigations is the potential loss of NIH (government) funding if they did not comply. This kind of leverage should drive any (private) institution to embrace vigorous IP protection policy.

So, using the potential loss of government funding (to inspire private research institutions to embrace IP protection) seems to be helping, but how can private companies (that do not depend upon government funding) duplicate this result?

Should private corporations apply purse-strings leverage to help their subsidiaries embrace vigorous IP protection strategies?

Something to consider.

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Ron Alvarez is an IP Investigations / Protection writer and licensed private investigator in New York City. He is a former NYPD lieutenant where he investigated robbery, narcotics, internal affairs, and fine art theft cases. Ron is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and earned a B.A. in Government and Public Administration from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. He has published a number of articles on various investigative topics for PI Magazine. Ron is certified by the Interpol-International IP Crime Investigators College (IIPCIC.) as a "Transnational and Organized Crime Intellectual Property (IP) Investigator."

3 comments on “Know Your Researcher – Academic Espionage – Trade Secrets Theft

  1. Tom Manley

    THANK YOU RON
    I downloaded the FBI SPIN program .
    WOW so much has changed with the FBI since I was an Agent.
    The world has become exponentially more complicated and
    I am glad to see the FBI is keep up with the changes.
    Godspeed
    Tom Manley

  2. Ron Alvarez

    Always great getting your feedback, Tom!
    And I couldn’t agree with you more–it brings me tremendous comfort to know the Bureau is doing their part to battle this out of control trade secrets thefts problem.
    Thank you again for your comment.
    Godspeed back to you!
    Ron

  3. Tom Manley

    It is so important for academic and research institutions to be vigilant.
    There are many possibilities for compromise
    Take Care
    Tom Manley
    Special Agent FBI – Retired (1969-1999)

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