Rob Portman column: Cracking down on theft of U.S. research

Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in on

The United States is home to the best universities and research institutes in the world. The work being done in labs and classrooms across the country facilitates life-saving medical advances, bolsters our national security and profoundly changes the way we live. Our research enterprise has played a central role in making the United States the most advanced, innovative and prosperous nation in the world.

Yet, it has now become clear that our grant-making agencies and law enforcement authorities have allowed our direct competitors, particularly China, to effectively leapfrog America by stealing this research for their own gain. There is no federal requirement for universities and research institutions that sponsor foreign researchers to put policies in place to safeguard federally funded research and sensitive technologies from being stolen. And we’re already seeing the consequences.

Most recently, Charles Lieber, chair of the Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department at Harvard University, was accused of lying to U.S. authorities about his participation in the Chinese government-run “Thousand Talents Plan,” which can pay elite researchers from around the world hundreds of thousands of dollars to conduct research in Chinese laboratories.

The criminal complaint filed by the Department of Justice alleges the Chinese government paid Dr. Lieber, as a Thousands Talents member, up to $50,000 a month in salary, $150,000 annually for living expenses and more than $1.5 million to run a shadow lab in China. In return, Lieber — a U.S. citizen — allegedly agreed to share cutting-edge, U.S. taxpayer-funded research with Wuhan University of Technology, which is part of the Chinese government’s national university system. At the same time he was allegedly being funded by China, Dr. Lieber also received U.S. government funding to conduct research for the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health despite those agencies requiring that grant recipients disclose foreign financial conflicts of interest.

As chair of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, I led an eight-month investigation into China’s systematic stealing of U.S. intellectual property through the Thousand Talents Plan, culminating late last year with the release of an eye-opening bipartisan report that shows that the case of Dr. Lieber is far from an isolated incident.

For example, we found a researcher at a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory who participated in the Thousand Talents Plan who was accused of using intellectual property from that lab to file a patent under the name of a Chinese company, effectively stealing the U.S. government-funded research and claiming it for China.

In another case, a Thousand Talents postdoctoral fellow at a Department of Energy laboratory allegedly stole over 30,000 electronic files from the lab and returned to China with them to support that country’s national defense and military development.

The report also explained how the Chinese government has used its talent programs to recruit American scientists and researchers like Dr. Lieber to work in so-called “shadow labs” in China, where they deliberately conduct the same research they undertake in the United States.

We revealed that Thousand Talents researchers sign contracts that often require them to hide their participation in the program from their research institution. This runs directly counter to U.S. laws requiring federal grant recipients to disclose any funding they receive from foreign sources. Some contracts even contain language requiring the researchers to acquire research from their U.S. government-funded labs and transmit it to China.

The U.S. government spends more than $150 billion a year in taxpayer dollars on research and development grants. Shockingly, we learned that our federal grant-making agencies in Washington – including the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation – have done little to thwart China’s talent theft efforts. They don’t coordinate how they award, track and monitor the billions in taxpayer funds they disburse to universities and research institutes across the nation. Such transparency would help discourage Americans from participating in programs like the Thousand Talents Plan.

They have effectively left our research enterprise vulnerable to foreign exploitation, and China has stepped up to take advantage of the opportunity, using the stolen research to help modernize its military and fuel its economic rise over the past two decades. This is an affront to American taxpayers and a brazen failure to protect U.S. national security.

Federal law enforcement must do more. At our hearing last November, the FBI admitted for the first time that, “with [their] present-day knowledge of the threat from Chinese talent plans, [they] wish [they] had taken more rapid and comprehensive action in the past.” I’m glad that after our hearing, the FBI is stepping up its efforts with several recent high-profile arrests, including that of Dr. Lieber.

However, stopping China’s rampant theft of our cutting-edge research and intellectual property will require more comprehensive action, and I’m working on bipartisan legislation to do just that. We need to empower the U.S. government to conduct appropriate oversight on foreign researchers and their access to sensitive technologies, prosecute those who fail to disclose foreign funding and potential conflicts of interest on grant applications, and strengthen accountability measures for both grant money and foreign donations to U.S. research institutions and universities.

While we must continue to work with other countries on breakthrough research, we cannot stand idly by as the research funded by American taxpayers is stolen by our global competitors to give them military and economic advantage.

Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in on

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, chairs the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, chairs the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.