“While it’s commendable that the inappropriate activities at the Moffitt Cancer Center were uncovered internally, it’s troubling that the problem wasn’t limited to bench scientists but involved the leaders of the Center. And they were Americans, not foreign nationals.”
Underscoring the seriousness of the threat posed by the Chinese government’s campaign to obtain results of U.S. publicly funded research, the Board of Directors at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida announced that its President and CEO, Dr. Alan List, along with center director, Timothy Sellers, suddenly resigned after an internal review found they had violated conflict of interest rules regarding their relationships with China. Four researchers also abruptly left. The actions came after the Moffitt Center conducted an internal review of collaborations between its employees and Chinese institutions as a result of warnings from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to its grant recipients about foreign attempts to influence or compromise their research.
The Moffitt Review
The Center is named for former House Speaker of Florida, H. Lee Moffitt, who informed Florida lawmakers that NIH deputy director for extramural research, Dr. Michael Lauer, had been briefed on the findings of the investigation. Lauer is the NIH leader on the issue of inappropriate foreign attempts to access its R&D. According to the Tampa Bay Times, he had previously stated: “Many of the universities had no clue this was happening on their campuses… The scientists they employed never told them about any ties to China, or that they were also employed there.”
Upon learning of the resignations, the State of Florida announced that it is investigating Moffitt and other federally and state funded academic institutions.
NIH provides $30 billion a year in R&D funding to academic institutions. Resulting inventions are governed by the provisions of the Bayh-Dole Act, which requires that they are owned by the inventing organization but they must be reported to the funding agency, with preferences given to licensing and developing them in the United States.
The Moffitt review focused on connections between its researchers and China’s “Thousand Talents” program. According to a report by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that we discussed here, the Thousand Talents program is a central part of China’s effort to secure backdoor access to promising research in American universities, federal laboratories and medical centers.
According to a statement by the Center, there is no indication that research was affected by the relationships it uncovered. However, Moffitt officials announced that they are reviewing internal procedures for protecting their intellectual property. They are also reviewing a 12-year partnership with the Tianjin Medical University Cancer Institute and Hospital in China.
Concerns have been growing about Chinese efforts to pilfer American publicly funded research. In “Vast Dragnet Targets Theft of Biomedical Secrets for China“, The New York Times reported that nearly 200 investigations are underway at major research centers as a result of the NIH and the FBI cracking down on Chinese activities.
“Seventy-one institutions, including many of the most prestigious medical schools in the United States, are now investigating 180 individual cases involving potential theft of intellectual property,” said Dr. Lauer in the Times article. In 24 instances there appears to be evidence of criminal activity. “It seems to be hitting every discipline in biomedical research,” Dr. Lauer added.
However, foreign threats are not limited to the life sciences. Any area of economic or military significance is targeted, prompting the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and NASA, among others, to warn their grantees to be on the lookout for inappropriate or undisclosed relationships between their researchers and foreign interests.
The New Threat
The current scrutiny of foreign research ties began in 2016 when the FBI contacted NIH indicating concerns that something was amiss in the federal grants system. FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to Congress that China was working to “steal their way up the economic ladder at our expense.” NIH began sending letters to its grantees alerting them to the problem. Several medical centers received follow on notices asking that activities of specific scientists be investigated.
According to the New York Times:
Some of the first inklings of trouble were discovered by administrators at M.D. Anderson, a prominent cancer research and treatment center. Between August 2018 and January 2019, five letters arrived at the center from the N.I.H. asking administrators to investigate the activities of five faculty members.
Dr. Peter Pisters, president of the cancer center, said he and his colleagues reviewed faculty emails, and they turned up disturbing evidence.
Among the redacted emails provided to The New York Times was one by a scientist planning to whisk proprietary test materials to colleagues in China. “I should be able to bring the whole sets of primers to you (if I can figure out how to get a dozen tubes of frozen DNA onto an airplane),” he wrote.
The redacted M.D. Anderson emails also suggest that a scientist at the medical center sent data and research to the Chinese government in exchange for a $75,000 one-year “appointment” under the Thousand Talents Program, which Beijing established a decade ago to recruit scientists to Chinese universities.
Evidence was found by some grantees that Chinese start-up companies had been formed based on NIH funded research which had gone out the back door.
The university community is taking the issue seriously, with the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities jointly issuing guidance to their member schools on steps that should be taken to protect their research from security threats and improper foreign influence. With bipartisan political heat increasing, schools are well advised to get on top of the issue.
While it’s commendable that the inappropriate activities at the Moffitt Cancer Center were uncovered internally, it’s troubling that the problem wasn’t limited to bench scientists but involved the leaders of the Center. And they were Americans, not foreign nationals.
Lenin once reportedly bragged that Communism would hang the West. One of his cronies smiled and asked: “And where will we get the rope?” Lenin shot back: “They will sell it to us.” Things have changed since Lenin’s day. The new model isn’t buying the rope but stealing it. Either way, the intent is the same.
Lock the Back Door
It is expected that the first phase of the pending U.S.- China trade deal will have some provision for halting the theft of intellectual property from our companies doing business over there. We’d better get a mechanism in place to lock our back door as well. This is where the discoveries driving our economy and protecting the national defense are being created. And if they are stolen by our most serious rival, the future won’t be pretty.
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