American taxpayers contribute over $150 billion each year to scientific research. Through entities like the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy’s National Labs, taxpayers fund innovations that contribute to national security and innovation.
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 open nature of research in America encourages our researchers and scientists to “stand on the shoulders of giants.” In turn, America attracts the best and brightest. Foreign researchers and scholars travel to the U.S. just to participate in the advancement of science and technology. Some countries, however, seek to exploit America’s openness to advance their own national interests.
The most aggressive of them has been China. China primarily does this through its more than 200 talent recruitment plans—the most prominent of which is the Thousand Talents Plan. Launched in 2008, the Thousand Talents Plan incentivizes individuals engaged in research and development in the U.S. to transmit the knowledge and research they gain here 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 willfully failed to disclose receiving money from the Chinese government.
China aims to be the world’s leader in science and technology (“S&T”) by 2050. To achieve its S&T goals, China has implemented a whole-of-government campaign to recruit talent and foreign experts from around the world. China’s campaign is well financed. 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 $2 trillion. For the Chinese government, international scientific collaboration is not about advancing science, it is to advance China’s national security interests.
China understands the tremendous upside associated with leading the biotech revolution. Massive genomic data sets at places like BGI Group (formerly known as the Beijing Genomics Institute), coupled with China’s now-global genetic data collection platform and “all-of-nation” approach to AI, will make them a formidable competitor in the bio realm. BGI may be serving, wittingly or unwittingly, as a global collection mechanism for Chinese government genetic databases, providing China with greater raw numbers and diversity of human genome samples as well as access to sensitive personal information about key individuals around the world.
The U.S.cannot afford to look back in 10 years and be surprised by the biotechnology equivalent of Huawei. Additionally, Russia’s long-standing disregard for scientific norms and bioethical principles, demonstrated by its development and employment of novel nerve agents such as Novichok for assassination attempts and U.S. government concerns over Russia’s compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention, could presage a willingness to utilize advanced biotechnology abilities for nefarious purposes
Here are the responses several U.S. agencies have made in response to Chinese aggression.
National Science Foundation
The NSF funds approximately 27% of all federally funded basic research at U.S. colleges and universities, leading to 12,000 annual awards to more than 40,000 recipients. In light of Chinese talent recruitment plan members’ misappropriation of NSF funding, NSF has taken several steps to mitigate this risk.
As of July 2019, NSF policy prohibits federal employees from participating in foreign talent recruitment plans, but the policy does not apply to NSF-funded researchers. These NSF-funded researchers are the individuals mostly likely to be members of foreign talent recruitment plans. The NSF also does not vet grantees before awarding them funding. Instead, NSF relies on sponsoring institutions to vet and conduct due diligence on potential grantees. NSF has no dedicated staff to ensure compliance with NSF grant terms.
National Institutes of Health
The NIH invests over $31 billion annually in medical research through 50,000 competitive grants to more than 300,000 researchers. NIH has recently found instances of talent recruitment plan members committing grant fraud and transferring intellectual capital and property. It also found possible malign foreign influence in its peer review process. The NIH has attempted to address these issues, but significant gaps in NIH’s grant integrity process remain.
Much like the NSF, NIH relies on institutions to solicit and review disclosures of financial conflicts by its employees participating in NIH-funded research. Unlike the NSF, the NIH has a Division of Grants Compliance and Oversight that conducts site visits at institutions to advance compliance and provide oversight. The number of oversight visits to institutions has fallen from 28 in 2012 to only three last year. NIH officials remain concerned that China’s talent recruitment plans are more pervasive than what they have uncovered to date.
Department of Energy
“Energy” is the largest federal sponsor of basic research in the physical sciences. Energy awards $6.6 billion in grants and contracts annually that support over 25,000 researchers at over 300 institutions and National Labs. Energy’s research funding and prominent role in advanced research and development make it particularly attractive to the Chinese government. Energy has recently identified Thousand Talent Plan members working on sensitive research at National Labs and Thousand Talent Plan members with security clearances.
Energy has been slow to address vulnerabilities surrounding the openness of its National Labs and its scientific collaboration with the 35,000 foreign nationals who conduct research at the National Labs each year. For example, in December 2018, Energy began requiring all foreign nationals’ curricula vitae be included in Foreign Visits and Assignments requests to Energy facilities as well as in the Foreign Access Central Tracking System database.
Despite 30-year old federal regulations prohibiting U.S. government employees from receiving foreign compensation, Energy clarified only this year that employees and contractors are prohibited from participating in foreign talent recruitment plans.
“State” issues nonimmigrant visas (“NIV”) to foreign nationals seeking to visit the United States to study, work, or conduct research. It is on the front line in the U.S. government efforts to protect against intellectual property theft and illicit technology transfers. While State has a process to review NIV applicants attempting to violate export control laws, State’s authority to deny visas is limited. State’s review process leads to less than five percent of reviewed applicants being denied a visa. Nor does State systematically track visa applicants linked to China’s talent recruitment plans, even though some applicants linked to Chinese talent recruitment plans have engaged in intellectual property theft. facilities as well as in the Foreign Access Central Tracking System database. Despite 30-year old federal regulations prohibiting U.S. government employees from receiving foreign compensation, Energy clarified only this year that employees and contractors are prohibited from participating in foreign talent recruitment plans.
Department of Commerce
“Commerce”’s Bureau of Industry and Security conducts assessments of defense-related technologies and “administers export controls of dual-use items which have both military and commercial applications.” Commerce is also responsible for issuing deemed export licenses to firms that employ or host foreign nationals seeking to work on controlled technology projects.
The Subcommittee found that Commerce rarely denies an application for a deemed export license. Commerce’s denial rate in 2018 for deemed export licenses was only 1.1 percent. Commerce officials told the Subcommittee that it has not revoked a deemed export license in the past five years, despite the recent listing of new entities on Commerce’s Entity List that require additional scrutiny.
Commerce issued deemed export licenses to Chinese nationals who participated in talent recruitment plans, had ties to Huawei, and were affiliated with other concerning entities.
Federal Bureau of Investigation
The “FBI” protects the U.S. from foreign intelligence operations and espionage. The FBI, however, has recognized that it was “was slow to recognize the threat of the Chinese Talent Plans.” It was not until mid-2018, however, that FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. took control of the FBI’s response to the threat. Moreover, after collecting information on suspected talent plan participants, the FBI waited nearly two years to coordinate and provide those details to federal grant-making agencies. This delay likely prevented the federal government from identifying talent recruitment plan members who engaged in illegal or unethical grant practices or the unauthorized transfer of technology.
The FBI has yet to develop an effective, nationwide strategy to warn universities, government laboratories, and the broader public of the risks of foreign talent recruitment plans.
White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
The “OSTP” has formal authority to convene all research funding agencies on matters of policy through the National Science and Technology Council. OSTP formally established a joint committee in May 2019 to begin a policy review to coordinate efforts to adopt best practices across the federal government to mitigate foreign exploitation of the U.S. open innovation system. This review is intended to develop a longer-term strategy for balancing engagement and risk without stifling innovation. The U.S. government’s vast and varied array of grant-making agencies complicates this policy review.
Source: U.S. government