WASHINGTON — Institutions across the U.S. may have fallen victim to a tiny fraction of foreign researchers who worked to feed American intellectual property to their home countries, an advisory committee to the National Institutes of Health found in a report issued Thursday.
The report zeroed in on China’s “Talents Recruitment Program,” which the Pentagon has previously identified as an effort “to facilitate the legal and illicit transfer of US technology, intellectual property and know-how” to China.
A key qualification for becoming part of the Chinese program, also known as “Thousand Talents,” is access to intellectual property, said M. Roy Wilson, the co-chair of the advisory committee to the NIH director and the president of Wayne State University.
While only a small fraction of foreign researchers in the U.S. are part of the Chinese program, many of the recruits have received U.S. federal funding from institutions including the NIH, the report said.
The report represents NIH’s most concrete public action to date to combat the threat of American research being transported overseas to countries attempting to compete with the U.S. scientifically. While the report focused on China, it stressed that NIH has encountered similar problems with a small number of researchers from other countries as well.
In August, NIH announced it had launched an investigation into foreign threats to research, saying then that it had identified “undisclosed foreign financial conflicts,” along with undisclosed affiliations with other research institutions and violations in the peer-review process at roughly a half-dozen institutions.
At the investigation’s outset, Collins sent a letter to roughly 10,000 grantee institutions recommending they set up briefings with local FBI offices to learn about how to protect U.S. intellectual property.
Thursday’s report specified that some information had been inappropriately shared by NIH peer reviewers with individuals not authorized to participate in the peer-review process.
Wilson declined to specify specific monetary values for the intellectual property lost to illicit transfer, but he said the severity was impossible to ignore.
“It’s not just random here or there,” Wilson said of foreign threats to U.S. research. “It is significant.”
The report makes several recommendations to NIH Director Francis Collins, including that his agency begin a broad education campaign about need for grantee institutions to require that investigators disclose foreign support, international interests, and overseas collaborations guiding their research.
Institutions should also work to develop enhanced cybersecurity protocols and routines for hosting foreign scholars on research visits, which can sometimes be “potential entry points for unwanted information gathering,” the report said.
Much of the debate stems from media coverage this year featuring Liu Ruopeng, a billionaire Chinese researcher working at Duke University who was accused of stealing information used to develop a so-called “invisibility cloak” on behalf of the Chinese government between 2006 and 2009.
“In retrospect, it may be that he targeted this particular lab,” Wilson said of Liu, before alluding to situations in which foreign researchers at Wayne State and at Duke had run “shadow labs” in their home country while conducting government-funded research in the U.S.
At institutions with multiple infractions, the committee recommended, NIH should pursue an institution-wide assessment to determine the extent of the compromise.
The advisory committee, however, echoed previous statements from Collins by stressing the importance of making foreign researchers welcome in the United States, while ensuring appropriate safeguards for the few bad actors identified.
Twenty-four percent of U.S. Nobel prizes, the report noted, have been awarded to American scientists born abroad.