The United States is home to the best universities and research institutes in the world. Our research institutes have played a central role in making the United States the most advanced, innovative and prosperous nation in the world.
Yet, it has now become clear that our grant-making agencies and law enforcement authorities have allowed our direct competitors, particularly China, to effectively leapfrog America by stealing this research for their own gain. There is no federal requirement for universities and research institutions that sponsor foreign researchers to put policies in place to safeguard federally funded research and sensitive technologies from being stolen. And we’re already seeing the consequences.
Most recently, Charles Lieber, chair of the Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department at Harvard University, was accused of lying to U.S. authorities about his participation in the Chinese government-run “Thousand Talents Plan,” which can pay elite researchers from around the world hundreds of thousands of dollars to conduct research in Chinese laboratories.
The criminal complaint filed by the Department of Justice alleges the Chinese government paid Dr. Lieber, as a Thousands Talents member, up to $50,000 a month in salary, $150,000 annually for living expenses and more than $1.5 million to run a shadow lab in China. In return, Lieber – a U.S. citizen – allegedly agreed to share cutting-edge, U.S. taxpayer-funded research with Wuhan University of Technology, which is part of the Chinese government’s national university system. At the same time he was allegedly being funded by China, Dr. Lieber also received U.S. government funding to conduct research for the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health despite those agencies requiring that grant recipients disclose foreign financial conflicts of interest.
As chair of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, I led an eight-month investigation into China’s systematic stealing of U.S. intellectual property through the Thousand Talents Plan, culminating late last year with the release of an eye-opening bipartisan report that shows that the case of Dr. Lieber is far from an isolated incident.
For example, we found a researcher at a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory who participated in the Thousand Talents Plan who was accused of using intellectual property from that lab to file a patent under the name of a Chinese company, effectively stealing the U.S. government-funded research and claiming it for China.
The report also explained how the Chinese government has used its talent programs to recruit American scientists and researchers like Dr. Lieber to work in so-called “shadow labs” in China, where they deliberately conduct the same research they undertake in the United States.
Shockingly, we learned that our federal grant-making agencies in Washington – including the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation – have done little to thwart China’s talent theft efforts. They don’t coordinate how they award, track and monitor the billions in taxpayer funds they disburse to universities and research institutes across the nation. Such transparency would help discourage Americans from participating in programs like the Thousand Talents Plan.
They have effectively left our research enterprise vulnerable to foreign exploitation, and China has stepped up to take advantage of the opportunity ...
Federal law enforcement must do more. At our hearing last November, the FBI admitted for the first time that, “with [their] present-day knowledge of the threat from Chinese talent plans, [they] wish [they] had taken more rapid and comprehensive action in the past.”
Stopping China’s rampant theft of our cutting-edge research and intellectual property will require more comprehensive action, and I’m working on bipartisan legislation to do just that. We need to empower the U.S. government to conduct appropriate oversight on foreign researchers and their access to sensitive technologies, prosecute those who fail to disclose foreign funding and potential conflicts of interest on grant applications, and strengthen accountability measures for both grant money and foreign donations to U.S. research institutions and universities.