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The Spy Next Door?

December 30, 2021

Academic institutions and government organizations strive to prevent research espionage while maintaining open scientific collaborations

For decades, the U.S. has fostered international research collaborations with scientists in other countries, encouraging openness in hopes of better and faster discoveries. Lately, though, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Institutes of Health, and other governmental agencies have sounded the alarm about "biomedical research espionage," calling attention to the possibility of foreign scientists working in U.S. laboratories stealing confidential information to capitalize on U.S.-conducted research.

The danger appears to be more than theoretical. Now, concerns about economic losses and threats to national security have prompted federal agencies and individual institutions to take concrete steps to enhance protections against spying. Certain security measures, such as increased oversight of grants to foreign researchers and clarified guidelines for funding and peer review, have garnered widespread support, while others, like limiting visa limitations for scientists from certain countries, have stirred up controversy.

In today's political climate, legislators and members of the scientific community are tasked with protecting U.S. interests without harming positive collaborations, creating hostile work environments, or introducing racial and ethnic profiling.

"It says something when the National Academy of Sciences, for example, had a roundtable discussion on this very question, with stakeholders from the different [private institutions and federal agencies], and they pulled up a Cold War–era report that addressed ways to balance science and security," Joanne Carney, director of government relations at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told ASH Clinical News. "We're essentially in a new phase of this."

ASH Clinical News spoke with Ms. Carney and other stakeholders about foreign influences on research integrity, how U.S. agencies and researchers have heightened security, and efforts to prevent this type of espionage.

Borderless Science

Collaborations between countries allow for an open flow of ideas and information that helps scientists complete projects more efficiently and effectively than they would without each other's help. Throughout the process, however, collaborators have access to information that they can take and share with other parties who may have less-than-altruistic motives (usually economic and political), breaching the trust and even confidentiality and material-use agreements between researchers. They may also use scientific discoveries to obtain additional economic support for the same research without disclosing the funding redundancy to either funding source.

In remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations in April 2019, FBI Director Christopher Wray referred to individuals who engage in this type of espionage as "nontraditional collectors of information." They tend to be foreign researchers working in U.S. laboratories, who also are working with governments or researchers in their home countries.1

In many cases, foreign researchers do not intentionally hide their relationships with their home institutions, and their motivations are not nefarious, according to M. Roy Wilson, MD, president of Wayne State University in Detroit and cochair of an NIH working group on biomedical research integrity. Rather, the rules for reporting funding sources and collaborations are unclear – leading to confusion among investigators.

"It is usually inadvertent and not purposeful," he said. "Still, the problem of some scientists not reporting what they should and some being bad actors is real."

Failing to disclose other funding sources can have economic ramifications for U.S. partners: When the NIH or an individual institution sponsors an investigator and that investigator makes a discovery, it typically is patented. The rewards of that patent are usually shared between the researcher and his or her funders – both foreign and domestic. But, if the scientist is receiving undisclosed funds from other sources or conducting similar research in other labs without sharing that information with the NIH or their U.S. institution, the discovery can be patented elsewhere.

In that situation, "institutions don't get the payback that they would normally get," Dr. Wilson explained. According to a 2017 report from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, intellectual property theft from foreign countries costs the U.S. between $225 billion and $600 billion each year.2

"We still confront traditional espionage threats … but economic espionage dominates our counterintelligence program today," Director Wray added in his remarks. "More than ever, the adversaries' targets are our nation's assets, our information and ideas, our innovation, our research and development, our technology. And no country poses a broader, more severe intelligence collection threat than China."1

Nontraditional Espionage

Researchers are able to receive funding from both the NIH and foreign sources simultaneously, though not for the same research. However, given the implications for ownership of intellectual property and patent rights, all funding sources need to be reported when a scientist applies for grants.

Unlike typical forms of espionage – like piracy of foreign-created intellectual goods or counterfeiting of luxury goods and pharmaceuticals – biomedical research espionage falls into a new category of "nontraditional espionage."

The U.S. government is concerned about three forms of research espionage, said Ms. Carney: researchers creating "shadow labs" in another country working on the same projects as U.S. labs; failing to disclose funding and affiliations with other governments; and violating the peer review process.

Late last year, NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, sent a letter to more than 10,000 U.S. institutions that receive NIH funding, outlining concerns about these forms of espionage, including the "sharing of confidential information on grant applications by NIH peer reviewers with others, including foreign entities."3 These individuals can then publish, commercialize, and profit from U.S.-funded ideas.

Dr. Collins' letter responded to findings gathered by the working group, cochaired by Dr. Wilson, that was tasked with investigating foreign influences on research integrity. "Unfortunately, some foreign governments have initiated systematic programs to unduly influence and capitalize on U.S.-conducted research, including that funded by NIH," the panel wrote. "Peer review is a cornerstone of NIH," the authors added, making violations "extremely problematic."4

In certain cases, foreign scientists who received grants from the NIH also were receiving funds from their home country governments, and the foreign funding and affiliations were unknown to the NIH – and even to the U.S. universities where the scientists worked.

"The vast majority of foreign nationals make incredibly important contributions to American science," Dr. Collins continued in his letter, but, he added, "the biomedical research enterprise is under constant threat by risks to the security of intellectual property and the integrity of peer review, [and] the magnitude of these risks is increasing."3

The Blacklist

While foreign scientists who engage in research espionage can come from anywhere in the world, those specifically accused in Director Wray's noted remarks are Chinese nationals. The country's recent increased science and technology investments have made it a target of suspicion, and the target for many of the new policies designed to mitigate research and intellectual property theft.

The NIH's working group and the U.S. intelligence community highlighted a specific Chinese program as evidence of the country's efforts to profit from U.S. technology: The Thousand Talents Plan. The program, launched in 2008, aims to bring leading Chinese scientists, researchers, and entrepreneurs who are living and working abroad back to China.5 The program provides expatriate Chinese citizens with financial incentive to return home and removes administrative hurdles for foreign scientists who want to join the Chinese system. An investigation by Nature found that, a decade after its launch, the program attracted more than 7,000 people.

The Thousand Talents Plan was the subject of an April 2018 hearing organized by subcommittees of the U.S. House of Representatives. Experts in U.S.-China relations testified that Congress should end financial assistance to participants in the Thousand Talents Plan, because these individuals can steal scientific breakthroughs from the U.S. on their way back to China.5

"We want to protect collaboration, but, at the same time, we are looking to protect our national security and economic interests."

—Joanne Carney, Director of Government Relations, AAAS

In October 2018, references to the Thousand Talents Plan had been removed from Chinese government websites. Internal memos also revealed that the National Natural Science Foundation of China instructed participants and recruiters to avoid email correspondence about the program.

An Environment of Suspicion

Since Dr. Collins sent his letter in late 2018, at least 55 institutions have begun scrutinizing the foreign researchers in their ranks. Some of these investigations have resulted in scientists being terminated or resigning. Several of them were participants in the Thousand Talents Plan.

In perhaps the highest-profile case, officials at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston investigated five researchers – three of whom were ethnically Chinese – who were accused by federal authorities of being involved in the theft of American research for China.6 Two scientists resigned before termination proceedings began, and the institute was considering firing a third who did not step down as a result of the inquiry. Two additional scientists were investigated: One did not result in termination, and the other is ongoing. The findings suggested that some researchers had undisclosed appointments at Chinese institutions and at least one had shared confidential information from a grant application.

"As stewards of taxpayer dollars invested in biomedical research, we have an obligation to follow up" when asked to investigate grant recipients, MD Anderson President Peter Pisters, MD, told The Houston Chronicle. "This is part of a much larger issue the country is facing – trying to balance an open collaborative environment and at the same time protect proprietary information and commercial interests." He claimed that if the institute didn't act, the NIH could withhold funding.6

Dr. Pisters also told the Chronicle that the NIH expressed concerns about the possibility of espionage in the institution as early as 2015, at which point the hospital started cooperating with the FBI, including allowing the agency to search faculty email accounts and video surveillance.7

The firings at MD Anderson were followed just a month later by terminations of two scientists at Emory University who were accused of failing to disclose foreign sources of research funding and work they did for Chinese institutions.8 Their joint laboratory also was shut down, and the university asked four Chinese postdoctoral students working in the lab to leave the U.S. Both researchers are ethnically Chinese but are U.S. citizens who have worked at Emory for 23 years. The dismissed scientists have criticized the university's actions, noting that they were never given specific reasons for their termination.

Not all of the accused research spies have been of Chinese descent, however. One of the largest research breaches was the result of nine Iranian hackers.9 In March 2018, those individuals, acting on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, hacked the computers of 7,998 professors at 320 universities around the world (including 3,768 professors at 144 U.S. universities) and stole five years' worth of research data.

This was "one of the largest state-sponsored hacking campaigns ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice," said Geoffrey Berman, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. The scheme was uncovered by FBI investigations and reports from victims. "The hackers targeted innovations and intellectual property from our country's greatest minds [in many fields]," Mr. Berman added.

With ongoing investigations at many universities as a result of the NIH letter, terminations across the country are expected to mount.

Tightening Security

Along with quantifying the problems of research espionage by foreign scientists, the NIH working group cochaired by Dr. Wilson was tasked with devising recommended actions to prevent bad actors from stealing U.S. intellectual property. The list includes actions that could be taken by the NIH or by individual universities.

First and foremost, the group tackled uncertainty about the current guidelines for reporting funding and other ties to foreign countries, Dr. Wilson explained. Many of the suggestions were "recommendations that clarified what the responsibilities of individual investigators were in terms of reporting, so that the ambiguity was reduced," he said. "In better publicizing these responsibilities, [we are] making sure that a poor understanding the responsibilities could not be used as a reason for some of the misbehavior that was occurring."

The group's focus is on preventing research espionage so that criminal behavior does not occur. In that vein, the NIH working group proposed simple solutions to increase security – particularly cyber security. For example, Dr. Wilson said, when reviewing grant applications, researchers could be required to use technology that requires them to review the documents online and in such a way that prevents them from sharing files. "It's maybe less convenient, but when you talk about security, I think conveniences should really be secondary," he added.

Peer reviewers also could be required to use "dummy computers" when traveling; these devices would hold only the documents an individual needed for that brief period of travel so that "a person wanting to steal secrets can't download the contents of your entire computer," Dr. Wilson explained.

In June 2018, the Trump administration took one of its most controversial actions toward protecting research integrity: limiting the number and duration of academic visas for Chinese students studying sensitive topics such as robotics, aeronautics, and artificial intelligence. Previously, Chinese citizens were able to obtain five-year student visas, but under the new policy, students are forced to reapply for visas each year.10

Bad Actors, Bad Reactions?

The decision to restrict visas for Chinese scientists was widely condemned by members of the academic community, who warned that it would hinder scientific innovation and alienate foreign applicants from bringing their talents to the U.S. Critics of the policy pointed to a study from the National Science Foundation showing that, from 2005 to 2015, nine out of ten Chinese graduate students planned to stay in the U.S. The new rules, they fear, will push students back to their home countries.11

"Why would a student be willing to commit to a U.S. degree without a guarantee that they would have a steady visa?" Jenny Lee, PhD, a professor at the University of Arizona who studies international student mobility, posited in The New York Times.10 In addition to shrinking the pool of talented researchers in the U.S., the restriction also will have a substantial, immediate economic impact. According to a report from the Institute of International Education, international students (about a third of whom are Chinese) spend $39 billion per year in the U.S.12

In 2018, Congress even considered a draft amendment to a spending bill that would allow the federal government to bar funding for U.S.-based researchers who participated in any foreign recruitment program. The amendment didn't pass, as it was viewed as targeting the Chinese researchers working with the Thousand Talents Plan.

Racial Profiling

Many members of the research community are concerned that security measures like the visa and proposed funding restrictions are perpetuating racial profiling, decreasing the quality of U.S. research and possibly costing the country money. Since the allegations of research espionage surfaced at MD Anderson, another 10 senior-level researchers and administrators of Chinese descent have left the institution among what some consider a toxic environment.

"These developments have led to confusion, fear, and frustration among these highly dedicated professionals, who are in danger of being singled out for scapegoating, stereotyping, and racial profiling," the Chinese American Hematologist and Oncologist Network (CAHON) and other professional societies wrote in a letter submitted to Science.13 They acknowledged the need for security measures but warned that "some NIH recommendations could target collaborations if implemented with bias."

The letter went on to criticize specific aspects of increased security measures, such as more detailed reporting requirements for foreign collaborations, which they say could hinder international partnerships. "It is our sincere hope that these actions, which we believe amount to racial profiling, will stop immediately and that increased security measures will not be used to tarnish law-abiding scientists and limit normal and productive scientific exchanges," they continued. "We thus urge both federal and local governments to work with our academic and research institutions to create a respectful, transparent, and productive environment for everyone, regardless of their ethnic origin."

The societies also addressed the long-lasting effects of false accusations on both the accused individual and the larger community of Chinese-American scientists. False accusations have rocked the research community in the past. For example, in 2014, Sherry Chen, a Chinese-American researcher with the National Weather Service, faced allegations that she had stolen confidential information about dams in the U.S. and failed to disclose a meeting with a Chinese official. She subsequently was cleared of any wrongdoing, but years later, she is still unable to return to her previous job. Her employers say that she can be fired over the same allegations from which she was exonerated.14

"It is our hope that unfortunate situations of racial profiling that have occurred in the past do not happen again and that increased security measures will not restrict normal scientific exchanges and/or negatively impact the careers of many law-abiding scientists," representatives from CAHON's board of directors told ASH Clinical News. "We believe that scientific advances and technological innovations are the result of global efforts, and their future depends on the continuation of time-tested traditions of openness and cooperation on the global stage."

A Balancing Act

In response to the letter in Science, Dr. Collins and other NIH representatives defended their recent policies by noting that, while "the vast majority of Chinese scientists working in America are honorable, conscientious, and dedicated to the cause of expanding knowledge for the betterment of humankind … unfortunately, instances have recently come to light where certain scientists … have violated the honor-based systems and practices of the American research enterprise."13

However, the agency says it is "deeply concerned about the issues" raised by CAHON and other societies. "We will use our influence and bully pulpit as necessary to speak out against such prejudicial actions, for which there is no place in the biomedical research community," the NIH representatives concluded.

The security concerns that need to be addressed are real, but some say new regulations do more harm than good.

Congress has recently taken up the issue of how to prevent academic espionage while maintaining an open exchange of ideas. Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of House legislators introduced the Securing American Science and Technology Act (SASTA) of 2019.15 The legislation would establish a roundtable at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine for academic stakeholders to discuss tensions between science and security. SASTA also establishes an interagency White House working group to tackle the same issues.

Scientists hope that more discussion of this topic will eliminate uncertainty about how universities should monitor faculty members' research activities and what types of research may require additional safety measures. Clearing up confusion around these rules will hopefully eliminate any bias or subjectivity in their application, which has led to accusations of racial profiling.

Ms. Carney and Dr. Wilson stressed that investigations center on individuals, and not entire ethnic groups.

But, Ms. Carney noted, "the information that's been revealed in media reports or in the Congressional hearings certainly is elevating the concern and there is a risk of bias – even unintended – among researchers." Some Chinese scientists have even admitted to submitting grant applications under false names because of fear of bias in the review process.10

"We want to protect collaboration," she emphasized, "but, at the same time, we are looking to protect our national security and economic interests." —By Emma Yasinski


  1. Council on Foreign Relations. A Conversation With Christopher Wray. Accessed June 26, 2019, from https://www.cfr.org/event/conversation-christopher-wray-0.
  2. Office of the United States Trade Representative. 2017 Special 301 Report. Accessed June 26, 2019, from https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/301/2017%20Special%20301%20Report%20FINAL.PDF.
  3. Department of Health and Human Services. Letter from Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD, August 20, 2018. Accessed June 26, 2019, from https://www.sciencemag.org/sites/default/files/NIH%20Foreign%20Influence%20Letter%20to%20Grantees%2008-20-18.pdf.
  4. The New York Times. U.S. officials warn health researchers: China may be trying to steal your data. Accessed June 26, 2019, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/06/us/politics/nih-china-biomedical-research.html.
  5. Nature. China hides identities of top scientific recruits amidst growing US scrutiny. Accessed June 26, 2019, from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-07167-6.
  6. The Houston Chronicle. MD Anderson ousts 3 scientists over concerns about Chinese conflicts of interest. Accessed June 25, 2019, from https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/MD-Anderson-fires-3-scientists-over-concerns-13780570.php.
  7. Science. Exclusive: Major U.S. cancer center ousts ‘Asian' researchers after NIH flags their foreign ties. Accessed June 25, 2019, from https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/04/exclusive-major-us-cancer-center-ousts-asian-researchers-after-nih-flags-their-foreign.
  8. Science. Terminated Emory researcher disputes university's allegations about China ties. Accessed June 25, 2019, from https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/05/terminated-emory-researcher-disputes-university-s-allegations.
  9. Science. Massive cyberhack by Iran allegedly stole research from 320 universities, governments, and companies. Accessed June 25, 2019, from https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/03/massive-cyber-hack-iran-allegedly-stole-research-320-universities-governments-and.
  10. The New York Times. Visa restrictions for Chinese students alarm academia. Accessed June 26, 2019, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/25/us/politics/visa-restrictions-chinese-students.html.
  11. National Science Foundation. 2015 Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities. Accessed June 26, 2019, from https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2017/nsf17306/static/report/nsf17306.pdf.
  12. Institute for International Education. Economic Impact of International Students. Accessed June 26, 2019, from https://www.iie.org/Research-and-Insights/Open-Doors/Data/Economic-Impact-of-International-Students.
  13. Lu S, Han Z, Hung MC, et al. Racial profiling harms science. Science. 2019;363:1290-4.
  14. The New York Times. Cleared of Spying for China, she still doesn't have her job back. Accessed June 25, 2019, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/17/technology/sherry-chen-national-weather-service.html.
  15. Science. Bipartisan bill would create forum for discussing how to counter U.S. academic espionage. Accessed June 26, 2019, from https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/05/bipartisan-bill-would-create-forum-discussing-how-counter-us-academic-espionage.


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