Stop the theft of U.S. research, technology

CINCINNATI — The coronavirus has challenged our country in unprecedented ways. To overcome this crisis, we are looking in part to our world-class research institutions to help develop treatments and vaccines for this disease. But these places of discovery and innovation are also prime targets for thieves.

In May, we were shocked to learn that, in northeast Ohio, a researcher previously affiliated with the Cleveland Clinic was allegedly stealing research from the clinic’s labs and taking it to China. According to the Department of Justice, this researcher and his research team received more than $3.6 million in U.S. taxpayer-funded grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), but hid that he was a dean at a Chinese university.

According to the criminal complaint, this researcher, who was also a professor at Case Western Reserve University, received $3 million in funding from the Chinese Communist Party to replicate his Cleveland Clinic research. He also had to work for 10 months per year in China while working full-time in Ohio and he even admitted to hand-carrying biological samples and research from the Cleveland Clinic directly to China. What’s more, the researcher attempted to recruit other U.S.-based researchers for his Chinese university.

If true, this researcher defrauded not only the U.S. government, but also the American taxpayers and his co-workers at the Cleveland Clinic. Notably, the Cleveland Clinic has worked closely with law enforcement officials and the NIH in investigating this case. It’s an alarming story, but not an isolated incident.

As chair of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, I led a bipartisan yearlong investigation last year into how the Chinese Communist Party has used so-called talent recruitment programs, most notably its Thousand Talents Program, to steal U.S. taxpayer-funded research to fuel the rise of China’s military and economy over the past two decades.

Every year, federal grant-making agencies distribute more than $150 billion in U.S. taxpayer funds for research. These funds are then allocated to our research institutions in the form of grants. In most cases, this system works well. But we found a troubling pattern where foreign governments like China have systematically targeted the most promising U.S.-based researchers, recruited them to talent programs like Thousand Talents, and paid them to take their American taxpayer-funded research to Chinese universities. While stealing this research is bad, what’s worse is that it is not taken for academic purposes. Instead, according to a State Department witness at our Senate hearing last November, there is a clear link between the research being taken from American labs and the latest advancements in China’s military and its economy.

This kind of behavior must stop. Other countries, including adversaries like Russia, Iran, and North Korea, operate these same sorts of talent recruitment programs. Just recently, it was reported that 54 NIH-funded researchers nationwide have resigned or been fired for hiding their ties to foreign research institutions as part of an investigation into this problem. Of the cases NIH studied, 70 percent of the researchers failed to disclose foreign grant funding, while 90 percent of the researchers investigated had ties to China.

I recently introduced bipartisan legislation called the “Safeguarding American Innovation Act” to end this practice and ensure that federal grant recipients are held accountable for hiding their foreign ties on federal grant applications. It will also reform the foreign researcher visa application process, require more safeguards on sensitive research, and help us better track where our grant money is going. The bill was approved by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee unanimously.

By passing this legislation, we can hold the Chinese Communist Party accountable and put an end to their theft of our taxpayer-funded research.