China is ‘systematically stealing US research’ – Senate

China has been aggressively using illegal and extra-legal mechanisms to acquire United States intellectual property, research and sensitive technologies, and federal agencies should work with the US research community to balance the need for international collaboration with securing US government-funded research, a Senate watchdog committee has found.

The report by the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations follows an eight-month investigation into how the American taxpayer has, in effect, unwittingly funded research that has contributed to China’s global rise over the past 20 years.

The chairman of the subcommittee, Senator Rob Portman, said: “Through talent recruitment programmes, China has strategically and systematically acquired knowledge and intellectual property from researchers and scientists in both the public and private sector.”

During a hearing before the subcommittee, he said he expected the release of the report to trigger “constructive, bipartisan legislation to address the serious problems” identified.

The report, Threats to the US Research Enterprise: China’s talent recruitment plans, says American taxpayers contribute more than US$150 billion each year to scientific research in the United States.

Through entities like the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories, taxpayers fund innovations that contribute to US national security and profoundly “change the way we live”.

“America built this successful research enterprise on certain values: reciprocity, integrity, merit-based competition and transparency. These values foster a free exchange of ideas, encourage the most rigorous research results to flourish, and ensure that researchers receive the benefit of their intellectual capital,” the report says.

“In turn, America attracts the best and brightest. Foreign researchers and scholars travel to the United States just to participate in the advancement of science and technology.”

But some countries seek to exploit America’s openness to advance their own national interests and the most aggressive of these has been China, the report says.

It says China primarily does this through its more than 200 talent recruitment plans – the most prominent of which is the Thousand Talents Plan, which incentivises individuals engaged in research and development in the United States to transmit the knowledge and research they gain to China in exchange for salaries, research funding, lab space and other incentives.

“China unfairly uses the American research and expertise it obtains for its own economic and military gain. In recent years, federal agencies have discovered talent recruitment plan members who downloaded sensitive electronic research files before leaving to return to China, submitted false information when applying for grant funds, and wilfully failed to disclose receiving money from the Chinese government on US grant applications.”

The report exposes how American taxpayer-funded research has contributed to China’s global rise over the past 20 years. It says that during that time, China openly recruited US-based researchers, scientists and experts in the public and private sector to provide China with knowledge and intellectual capital in exchange for monetary gain and other benefits.

“At the same time, the federal government’s grant-making agencies did little to prevent this from happening; nor did the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] and other federal agencies develop a coordinated response to mitigate the threat. These failures continue to undermine the integrity of the American research enterprise and endanger our national security.”

According to an analysis by the FBI, China has pledged to spend 15% of its gross domestic product on improving human resources from 2008 to 2020. That amounts to an investment of more than US$2 trillion. For the Chinese government, international scientific collaboration is “not about advancing science, it is to advance China’s national security interests”, the analysis says.

Portman said the investigation focused on the Thousand Talents Plan. Launched in 2008, China designed the Thousand Talents Plan to recruit 2,000 high-quality overseas experts. By 2017, China dramatically exceeded its recruitment goal, recruiting more than 7,000 ‘high-end professionals’.

Portman said the report details how the Chinese Communist Party controls and administers these talent recruitment programmes. Thousand Talents Plan members typically receive a salary and funding for their research from Chinese institutions, such as Chinese universities or research institutions.

“In exchange for the salary and research funding, which sometimes include what’s called a shadow lab in China, members sign legally binding contracts with the Chinese institutions that typically contain provisions that prevent the members from disclosing their participation in the programme,” Portman said.

“This requirement, of course, runs counter to US regulations that require grant recipients to disclose foreign funding sources. In effect, it incentivises programme members to lie on grant applications to US grant-making agencies and to avoid disclosing their funding from Chinese institutions. China now wants to keep this quiet.”

Online references scrubbed

Following increased public scrutiny, a year ago in October 2018, 10 years into the programme, China scrubbed online references to the Thousand Talents Plan and deleted the names of the participating scientists and researchers, Portman said.

The names of participating scientists and researchers are no longer publicly available, and the Senate report does not reveal the names of individual members in this report, but “in the interest of transparency”, it does include examples of Chinese Thousand Talent Plan contracts that researchers working with the Chinese government must sign and details steps that some American researchers have taken to aid China while hiding their activities from the US government.

Portman said these talent recruitment programmes are a win-win for China; China wins twice. “First, US taxpayers are funding this research, not China. They don’t have to pay for it. And second, China then uses that research it wouldn’t otherwise have, to advance its own economic and military interest.”

Government ‘slow to recognise threat’

The subcommittee reviewed the US federal government’s efforts to mitigate the threat posed by Chinese talent recruitment programmes to the US research enterprise. It found that the US government was slow to recognise the threat and “even today lacks a coordinated inter-agency strategy to secure US research”, Portman said.

Despite China publicly announcing the Thousand Talents Plan in 2008, it was not until mid-2018, last year, that FBI headquarters in Washington, DC took control of the response to the threat posed by the Thousand Talents Plan, he said.

In addition, despite spending more than US$150 billion of taxpayer money per year funding research and development, federal grant-making agencies – such as the Department of Energy, National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation – “lack a uniform and coordinated process to award, track and monitor federal grant funds”, Portman added. “That leaves our research dollars vulnerable.”

Portman cited the example of the Department of Energy’s prominent role in advanced research and development making it particularly attractive to the Chinese government. The Department of Energy is the largest federal sponsor of research in the physical sciences. “Most of this research occurs in our nation’s National Laboratories.”

“Through our investigation, we learned that Thousand Talents Plan members worked at National Labs on sensitive research and maintained security clearances. One Thousand Talents Plan member used intellectual property created during work in a National Lab and filed for a US patent under the name of a Chinese company, effectively stealing the US government-funded research and claiming it for the Chinese company.

“Another member downloaded more than 30,000 files from a National Lab without authorisation right before this individual returned to China.”

Portman said just last year the National Institutes of Health (NIH) started reviewing its grants for connections to the Thousand Talents Plan.

“The NIH found instances of grant fraud by failing to disclose foreign funding and associations; theft of intellectual capital and property; and violations of the peer review process by sharing confidential grant applications, which is against NIH rules.”

Portman was critical of the US Department of State, which has a process to review visa applicants it believes may attempt to steal sensitive technologies or intellectual property but “rarely denies visas under that process”.

Universities ‘must take responsibility’

He said US universities and US-based researchers must take responsibility for addressing this threat.

“If universities can vet employees for scientific rigour or allegations of plagiarism, they also can vet for financial conflicts of interests and foreign sources of funding. These are complicated risks that the US research community and the federal government must better understand. The threat to fundamental research is not always black and white – it’s not always about legal or illegal.”

Starting earlier this year, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy has hosted seminars and listening sessions with federal agencies and US research institutions on how to respond to these threats.

Portman concluded: “I will be the first to acknowledge that our relationship with China is complicated. However, one thing is very simple: It is not in our national security interest to fund China’s economic and military development with US taxpayer dollars.”

Senator Thomas R Carper, deputy chairman of the subcommittee, said: “I hope that the publication of this information will inspire a serious and urgent conversation on university campuses and among scientists and researchers about the growing threat that China’s talent recruitment efforts pose for our country.”