July 18, 2019

Wary of Chinese Espionage, Houston Cancer Center Chose to Fire 3 Scientists

Wary of Chinese Espionage, Houston Cancer Center Chose to Fire 3 Scientists


Two tenured scientists at a renowned cancer hospital in Houston have resigned, and the hospital is seeking to fire a third, in connection with an investigation into possible foreign attempts to take advantage of its federally funded research, the authorities said.

The departures are one of the first publicly revealed outcomes of dozens of similar investigations nationwide, as federal officials have increasingly warned of foreign exploitation of American-backed research — particularly from the Chinese.

The National Institutes of Health raised concerns last fall about the three scientists at the hospital, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, which confirmed on Sunday that it had decided to fire them. Two of the scientists, who have not been identified, resigned instead; the third is in the process of being fired, which requires a hearing in front of peer faculty members and approval by the university’s board of regents.

The center said it did not have information about any of the scientists’ nationalities. But in redacted investigative reports, the center referred to ties to China or Chinese residents or institutions in all three cases. The reports say that the researchers failed to disclose international collaborators and that at least one confidential grant application was sent to a scientist in China in violation of federal policy, among other allegations.

It is not clear from the investigative reports whether the researchers were necessarily being directed by Beijing.

“A small but significant number of individuals are working with government sponsorship to exfiltrate intellectual property that has been created with the support of U.S. taxpayers, private donors and industry collaborators,” Dr. Peter Pisters, the center’s president, said in a statement on Sunday.

“At risk is America’s internationally acclaimed system of funding biomedical research, which is based on the principles of trust, integrity and merit.”

The N.I.H. had also flagged two other researchers at MD Anderson. One investigation is proceeding, the center said, and the evidence did not warrant firing the other researcher.

The news of the firings was first reported by The Houston Chronicle and Science magazine.

The investigations began after Francis S. Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, sent a letter in August to more than 10,000 institutions the agency funds, warning of “threats to the integrity of U.S. biomedical research.”

Federal officials said they found that some researchers had shared with Beijing intellectual property and pilfered confidential information from grant applications. Other researchers had failed to disclose that they were receiving money from foreign sources while being funded by the N.I.H.

Federal officials have said that some scientists have run “shadow laboratories” in China while conducting N.I.H.-funded research in the United States. This month, the N.I.H. said 55 institutions across the country are investigating such concerns.

“These incidents are not unique to MD Anderson and we remind universities to look closely at their organizations to mitigate unscrupulous practices by foreign entities that aim to capitalize on the collaborative nature of the U.S. biomedical enterprise,” the agency said in a statement on Sunday.

At a hearing this month, Dr. Collins said that while attention from politicians and the news media has largely focused on Chinese schemes — particularly a program, called the Thousand Talents Plan, designed to lure global experts from Western universities and companies — other countries have also engaged in similar practices. He did not specify what other countries were involved.

He said the F.B.I. has been “investigating vigorously.” The F.B.I. declined to comment on Sunday.

Dr. Collins said at the hearing that there were an “increasing number of instances where faculty members have been fired,” though he did not specify how many or where those people might have worked.

“My own estimation is it’s the tip of the iceberg and that we will see more evidence of problems in the near future,” said Ross McKinney, chief scientific officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Part of the increased attention on possible exploitation of biomedical research is because China’s ambitions have risen in recent years, particularly in science and technology, said Scott Kennedy, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who briefed an N.I.H. panel on the topic.

“It certainly is possible that just more is coming to light,” he said. “But my guess is the level of activism and international science engagement has grown, and our systems are just gradually trying to catch back up.”

The N.I.H. is in a difficult situation, he said, because it wants to encourage international collaboration.

In the cancer center’s reports, it said it began investigating one scientist based in part on an N.I.H. complaint that the scientist had sent at least one grant application to a researcher in China. It believed that another researcher held an undisclosed position at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and that a third held an appointment at the Beijing Municipal Administration of Hospitals, among other findings about possible conflicts of interest and disclosure requirements.

The Trump administration has recently expressed concern about Chinese interest in American research and technology as the countries jockey for global influence and supremacy.

While the public focus has been on biomedical research funded by the National Institutes of Health, similar concerns have emerged for research funded by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, Dr. McKinney said.

In June, the federal government moved to limit the duration of visas for some Chinese students in certain high-tech fields, alarming academics who said it would have a chilling effect on the influx of talent provided by international students.

Many have questioned the public scrutiny on China, raising concerns about racial profiling. A December report commissioned by the N.I.H. said officials believe that only a “small number of scientists” committed violations. The report also pointed out that 39 percent of the Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry and medicine won by Americans have gone to foreign-born scientists.

“We need to be careful that we don’t step into something that feels almost a little bit like racial profiling,” Dr. Collins said.



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