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Opinion The Chinese threat to U.S. research institutions is real

Sen. Rick Scott questions Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz during a Senate Committee On Homeland Security And Governmental Affairs. (Samuel Corum/AFP/Getty Images)

The Chinese authorities are pursuing a comprehensive, well-organized and well-funded strategy to abuse the open and collaborative research environment in the United States to advance their economic and military expansion at our expense. But now U.S. research institutions are finally waking up to Beijing’s efforts to recruit American scientists for China’s benefit.

On Wednesday, H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute announced the forced resignations of its chief executive and president, Alan List, Vice President Thomas Sellers and four researchers. In a news release, the center said the employees committed compliance and conflict-of-interest violations. Specifically, the researchers didn’t reveal they had been recruited and paid by the Chinese government under its “Thousand Talents” program, a massive effort controlled by the Chinese Communist Party to recruit foreign scientists for its own purposes.

The Moffitt Center, located in Tampa, essentially fired its leaders after an investigation prompted by the National Institutes of Health, which had warned them “of foreign efforts to influence or compromise U.S. researchers,” the center said. The NIH, which is funded by U.S. taxpayers, is the source of more than half of the center’s $71 million in annual grant funding.

Although the center claims it found no evidence its research was compromised, the details of the relationships between its employees and the Chinese government are unknown. The center is now working with federal officials on the case. The FBI has been warning research institutions across the country that Chinese talent-recruitment programs are not only a threat to the integrity of the U.S. research environment but also a real national security concern.

In July, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray testified that the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party have many “so-called talent plans” that are not illegal but are routinely abused to steal intellectual property and take it back to China to advance Beijing’s various strategic and economic plans. The irony is that the U.S. taxpayer is essentially funding China’s economic resurgence, Wray said.

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“The Chinese government knows that economic strength and scientific innovation are the keys to global influence and military power, so Beijing aims to acquire our technology — often in the early stages of development — as well as our expertise, to erode our competitive advantage and supplant the United States as a global superpower,” John Brown, the FBI’s assistant director for counterintelligence, testified in November.

FBI investigations have found that the Chinese recruitment programs — and there are more than 200 of them — have been connected to violations of U.S. laws, including economic espionage, theft of trade secrets, circumvention of export controls and grant fraud, according to Brown. A 2019 report by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee outlined several examples of related abuses by employees at national labs, the Energy Department and graduate schools across the country.

Beijing, in response to new U.S. government and congressional scrutiny, decided to take the Thousand Talents program underground by deleting news articles and other online references to the program and its members, according to the committee’s report. Some of the Thousand Talents contracts even require the participants to keep their involvement secret.

Congress is pressing for more investigation, more transparency and more compliance in universities and research institutions across the country. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) sent a letter this month to all Florida universities calling on them to investigate and then reveal their researchers’ relationships with Chinese government programs.

“Everyone needs to be incredibly vigilant about Communist China’s growing influence,” Scott told me. “The situation at Moffitt just shows how far China will go to infiltrate American industries and institutions. I think every elected official needs to be sounding this alarm in their states.”

The Moffitt Center case is important also because it dispels the notion that any scrutiny of these programs represents anti-Chinese bias. After the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston ousted three scientists in April over similar failures to disclose relationships with Chinese institutions, some speculated they were targeted due to their Chinese ethnicity.

U.S. research institutions have been asleep to Beijing’s efforts for a long time because they think of themselves as practicing “open science” — rather than “strategic science,” as the Chinese government does. Some believe that because the research will eventually be published, the China threat is overblown. But that ignores the huge body of evidence that the Chinese government is using talent programs not for mutually beneficial collaboration but as vehicles to steal non-public research to feed their own national ambitions.

The U.S. government and the U.S. research community must speed up efforts to work together to determine the extent of Chinese government infiltration into the U.S. research environment and neutralize the threat. Then we need a national strategy for managing international scientific collaboration in a way that preserves the openness that characterizes our system while also protecting our national security.

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