About a month ago, U.S. officials began warning American pharmaceutical companies frantically searching for a COVID-19 vaccine to be on alert that China may try to steal their research. And U.S. authorities weren’t just engaging in bad PR against the country that had unleashed the coronavirus pandemic on the world. In fact, they seem to have been aware of a sort of biomedical espionage on the part of China for some time, culminating this month in the resignation or firing of over 50 scientists who had taken grant money for their work from China — and failed to disclose that funding.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) lead investigator began disclosing information about the probe in the summer of 2019, and its scope was broad: beginning in August 2018, “Bethesda, Maryland–based NIH has sent roughly 180 letters to more than 60 U.S. institutions about individual scientists it believes have broken NIH rules requiring full disclosure of all sources of research funding. To date, the investigation has led to the well-publicized dismissals of five researchers, all Asian Americans, at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, and Emory University in Atlanta.”
A new report from Science Magazine indicates that 189 scientists at 87 institutions were initially targeted and the data, described by Michael Lauer, NIH’s head of extramural research, as “sobering,” is just that.
In the vast majority of cases, Lauer reported, the person being investigated has been an Asian man in his 50s. Some three-quarters of those under investigation had active NIH grants, and nearly half had at least two grants. The 285 active grants totaled $164 million.
Lauer also presented data on the nature of the violations that NIH has uncovered. Some 70% (133) of the researchers had failed to disclose to NIH the receipt of a foreign grant, and 54% had failed to disclose participation in a foreign talent program. In contrast, Lauer said, only 9% hid ties to a foreign company, and only 4% had an undisclosed foreign patent. Some 5% of cases involved a violation of NIH’s peer-review system.
China has been engaged in a sustained attempt to use the U.S. university system in all manner of data gathering. They’ve reportedly engaged in phishing expeditions at some of the top schools in the U.S. in an attempt to gain maritime military secrets. And at least 10 schools as of last year had closed the controversial, Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes on their campuses at the urging of the U.S. federal government.
The Confucius Institutes have long been controversial. The centers vary somewhat across different campuses, but they typically offer some combination of Mandarin language classes, cultural programming and outreach to K-12 schools and the community more broadly. They are staffed in part with visiting teachers from China and funded by the Chinese government, with matching resources provided by the host institution. The number of U.S. universities hosting the institutes increased rapidly after the first was established at the University of Maryland College Park in 2004, growing to more than 90 at the peak.
With the revelation that China was targeting Asian researchers and paying them for their work through grants — and given the nation’s track record of using the U.S. university system to mine data — it’s reasonable to think whatever work these fired NIH scientists were conducting was being made available to the country that was giving them grants to conduct it.