Three senior researchers at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, are reported to have been ousted from their positions due to allegations of what can be described as “academic espionage” in connection with China. This, according to reports from The Houston Chronicle and Science magazine on April 19, 2019.
Of the five who were originally under investigation, three stand accused of leaking U.S. scientific research documents to foreign affiliates, including confidential National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant proposals under peer review.
It is also alleged that they had not disclosed significant financial relationships in China amongst other conflicts of interest. The fourth researcher is still under investigation, and the fifth has been cleared of allegations.
Notably, this comes as part of an ongoing correspondence between the FBI and MD Anderson which began in 2015 when the FBI initially reached out and expressed its concerns. In December 2017, MD Anderson agreed to provide hard drives that contained emails for an unspecified number of staff members.
In August 2018, NIH Director Francis Collins sent out a letter to around 10,000 academic institutions, warning them of a growing threat imposed by foreign nations looking to steal intellectual property and detailing three areas of concern.
The letter reads:
- Diversion of intellectual property (IP) in grant applications or produced by NIH-supported biomedical research to other entities, including other countries;
- Sharing of confidential information on grant applications by NIH peer reviewers with others, including foreign entities, or otherwise attempting to influence funding decisions; and
- Failure by some researchers working at NIH-funded institutions in the U.S. to disclose substantial resources from other organizations, including foreign governments, which threatens to distort decisions about the appropriate use of NIH funds.
Speaking with The New York Times, Collins estimates that there is more to come in “the near future;” with 55 institutions across the country also investigating the same problems, the NIH stated:
“These incidents are not unique to MD Anderson and we remind universities to look closely at their organizations to mitigate unscrupulous practices by foreign entities that aim to capitalize on the collaborative nature of the U.S. biomedical enterprise,”
The president of MD Anderson, Peter Pisters, told The Houston Chronicle that the NIH had contacted them directly, informing them of the five researchers and detailing conflicts of interest as well as unreported foreign earnings.
Having received $148 million in NIH grants last year, Pisters said:
“As stewards of taxpayer dollars invested in biomedical research, we have an obligation to follow up,”
“This is part of a much larger issue the country is facing.”
The Intellectual Property (IP) Commission noted in a 2017 report that such “theft” is “probably” costing the United States around $600 billion, which it says is a “low-end estimate of the cost of IP theft in three categories – counterfeit and pirated goods, software piracy, and trade secret theft.”