GOP members concerned NIH failing to hold spies accountable
Two Republican members of Congress have launched an investigation into Chinese espionage operations targeting confidential medical research performed by the National Institutes of Health, according to communications obtained exclusively by the Washington Free Beacon.
Reps. Jim Banks (R., Ind.) and Mike Gallagher (R., Wis.) are petitioning NIH leaders to disclose how researchers with ties to adversarial regimes such as China continue to participate in confidential research projects and receive American grant money, according to a letter sent Thursday to NIH director Francis Collins. The lawmakers express concerns about a lack of oversight at the agency that they say might have allowed foreign spies to gain access to critical research.
Chinese infiltration of the American medical research community has been a concern for federal authorities, including the FBI, for years. China has been responsible for multiple large-scale hacks on the health care industry, including patient data and medical research into cancer and other diseases.
As the coronavirus has swept the globe and amid revelations of China’s efforts to deceive the world about the virus, lawmakers are beginning to conduct audits on a range of federal agencies to ferret out Communist Party-backed spy operations. These investigations have become especially critical in light of revelations that NIH may have funded the Wuhan-based lab near where the coronavirus emerged.
Banks and Gallagher are asking NIH to provide Congress with information about individuals they may have identified as having undisclosed ties to foreign countries. This includes some 250 NIH researchers identified in recent years as having “suspicious foreign ties” that could trace back to a state-sponsored spy ring.
China has long attempted to steal U.S. government-sponsored research, including from the medical community and military-industrial complex. In some instances, Chinese spies have successfully smuggled proprietary information back to the Chinese government.
NIH has emerged as a particular concern for Banks and Gallagher due to lax policies that rarely punish those discovered to have undisclosed ties to foreign governments.
“This pandemic has raised significant questions about Francis Collins’s leadership at NIH,” said one senior GOP congressional aide, speaking only on background about the ongoing probe into the agency. “We are finding more and more instances of American taxpayer dollars improperly going to foreign entities. Collins is failing to take these instances seriously, only acting when cases come to light. Clearly, we need additional congressional oversight to make sure our tax dollars are being spent wisely over there.”
Michael Lauer, director of NIH’s extramural research program, recently told Science magazine that China has stolen the agency’s research by infiltrating its grant review process and then sharing this information with the communist government. Using this stolen information, China sets up what are known as “shadow labs” to “recreate the stolen NIH-funded research,” according to the lawmakers’ letter.
In August 2018, “nearly two years after being alerted of possible foreign espionage by the FBI, the NIH launched investigations into 250 NIH researchers with suspicious foreign ties,” according to the letter.
At the University of Texas’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, investigations concluded that at least “five different scientists” had been flagged for “sending confidential information to China.”
“Emails were uncovered suggesting a scientist sent confidential research data to China in exchange for $75,000” as well as an appointment to the regime’s Thousand Talents Program, a massive initiative to recruit medical researchers and experts.
Investigators also discovered cases in which researchers at U.S. medical schools that received NIH grants failed to disclose their ties to the Chinese government, even after repeated questioning. In some cases, these schools and individuals continue to receive NIH funding.
While the names of the institutions and individuals were withheld in public reports, investigators discovered that one American medical research institute funded by NIH failed to disclose one of its researcher’s ties to China. The “institution allowed the individual to continue as a principal investigator on the NIH grant and NIH has yet to take any further action,” according to information provided to Congress.
NIH’s handling of these repeated incidents has caused concern.
“None of the case studies resulted in immediate, decisive disciplinary action by NIH,” according to Banks and Gallagher. “The repeated deceptions outlined over these seven case studies call for an immediate administrative response. But in most cases, the NIH took no action.”
In fact, a Senate Committee on Homeland Security investigation found that NIH contacted at least “70 institutions regarding more than 130 individuals” over undisclosed foreign funding.
“All in all,” according to the lawmakers, “the Senate report contains seven NIH case studies, all of which involve a researcher failing to disclose a financial or contractual relationship with the Chinese government.”
To help Congress address the issue, Banks and Gallagher are requesting the NIH disclose its criteria for grant applications and explain what “administrative action [was taken] against grant recipients who have failed to disclose foreign ties.”
They also are seeking to determine if the NIH has taken disciplinary action against U.S. academic institutions that failed to report potential violations by their employees.
This information could help the lawmakers enact legislation to combat China’s espionage and ensure U.S. grant dollars are not allocated to foreign agents.
Lawmakers Investigate NIH Over Chinese Espionage Aimed at US Medical Research
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.
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.