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