Scientists With Links to China May Be Stealing Biomedical Research, U.S. Says

The scientist at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston was hardly discreet. “Here is the bones and meet of what you want,” he wrote in a misspelled email to researchers in China.

Attached was a confidential research proposal, according to administrators at the center. The scientist had access to the document only because he had been asked to review it for the National Institutes of Health — and the center had examined his email because federal officials had asked them to investigate him.

The N.I.H. and the F.B.I. have begun a vast effort to root out scientists who they say are stealing biomedical research for other countries from institutions across the United States. Almost all of the incidents they uncovered and that are under investigation involve scientists of Chinese descent, including naturalized American citizens, allegedly stealing for China.

Seventy-one institutions, including many of the most prestigious medical schools in the United States, are now investigating 180 individual cases involving potential theft of intellectual property. The cases began after the N.I.H., prompted by information provided by the F.B.I., sent 18,000 letters last year urging administrators who oversee government grants to be vigilant.

So far, the N.I.H. has referred 24 cases in which there may be evidence of criminal activity to the inspector general’s office of the Department of Health and Human Services, which may turn over the cases for criminal prosecution. “It seems to be hitting every discipline in biomedical research,” said Dr. Michael Lauer, deputy director for extramural research at the N.I.H.

The investigations have fanned fears that China is exploiting the relative openness of the American scientific system to engage in wholesale economic espionage. At the same time, the scale of the dragnet has sent a tremor through the ranks of biomedical researchers, some of whom say ethnic Chinese scientists are being unfairly targeted for scrutiny as Washington’s geopolitical competition with Beijing intensifies.

“You could take a dart board with medical colleges with significant research programs and, as far as I can tell, you’d have a 50-50 chance of hitting a school with an active case,” said Dr. Ross McKinney Jr., chief scientific officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

The alleged theft involves not military secrets, but scientific ideas, designs, devices, data and methods that may lead to profitable new treatments or diagnostic tools.

Some researchers under investigation have obtained patents in China on work funded by the United States government and owned by American institutions, the N.I.H. said. Others are suspected of setting up labs in China that secretly duplicated American research, according to government officials and university administrators.

The N.I.H. has not named most of the scientists under investigation, citing due process, and neither have most of the institutions involved. “As with any personnel matter, we typically do not share names or details of affected individuals,” said Brette Peyton, a spokeswoman at M.D. Anderson.

But roughly a dozen scientists are known to have resigned or been fired from universities and research centers across the United States so far. Some have declined to discuss the allegations against them; others have denied any wrongdoing.

In several cases, scientists supported by the N.I.H. or other federal agencies are accused of accepting funding from the Chinese government in violation of N.I.H. rules. Some have said that they did not know the arrangements had to be disclosed or were forbidden.

In August, Feng Tao, 48, a chemist at the University of Kansas known as Franklin, was indicted on four counts of fraud for allegedly failing to disclose a full-time appointment at a Chinese university while receiving federal funds.

His lawyer, Peter R. Zeidenberg, declined to comment on Dr. Tao’s case but suggested that prosecutors were targeting academics nationwide who had made simple mistakes.

“Professors, they get their summers off,” he said in an interview. “Oftentimes they will take appointments in China for the summer. They don’t believe they have to report that.

They next thing you know, they are being charged with wire fraud with 20-year penalties,” he added. “It’s like, are you kidding me?”

The investigations have left Chinese and Chinese-American academics feeling “that they will be targeted and that they are at risk,” said Frank Wu, a law professor at the University of California Hastings School of the Law and former president of the Committee of 100, an organization of prominent Chinese-Americans.

Dr. Wu and other critics said the cases recalled the government’s five-year investigation of Wen Ho Lee, a scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory who was accused in 1999 of stealing nuclear warhead plans for China and incarcerated for months, only to be freed after the government’s case essentially collapsed. He pleaded guilty to a single felony count of mishandling secrets.

More recently, the Justice Department has been forced to drop theft charges against at least four Chinese-American scientists since 2014: two former Eli Lilly scientists in Indiana, a National Weather Service hydrologist in Ohio and a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. The Justice Department changed its rules in 2016, giving greater oversight over these national security cases to prosecutors in Washington.

But Dr. Lauer and other officials said the investigations into biomedical research have uncovered clear evidence of wrongdoing. In one case at M.D. Anderson, a scientist who had packed a suitcase with computer hard drives containing research data was stopped at the airport on the way to China, Dr. Lauer and officials at the center said.

Overall, they argued, the cases paint a disturbing picture of economic espionage in which the Chinese government has been taking advantage of a biomedical research system in the United States built on trust and the free exchange of ideas.

“How would you feel if you were a U.S. scientist sending your best idea to the government in a grant application, and someone ended up doing your project in China?” Dr. McKinney asked.

Concern at the N.I.H. about the theft of biomedical research stretches back at least to June 2016, when the F.B.I. contacted N.I.H. officials with unusual questions about the American scientific research system.

How did peer review happen? What sort of controls were in place? “They needed to know how our system worked as compared to, say, national defense,” Dr. Lauer said.

The F.B.I. declined to discuss ongoing investigations, including why it initiated so many and how targets were selected. But Christopher Wray, director of the F.B.I., told the Senate Judiciary Committee in July that China is using “nontraditional collectors” of intelligence, and is attempting to “steal their way up the economic ladder at our expense.”

The F.B.I.’s national field office for commercial counterespionage, in Houston, asked administrators from Texas academic and medical centers to attend classified meetings in the summer of 2018 to discuss evidence of intellectual property theft. The administrators were given emergency security clearances and told to sign nondisclosure agreements.

Then, acting on information from the F.B.I. and other sources, the N.I.H. in late August 2018 began sending letters to medical centers nationwide asking administrators to investigate individual scientists.

“This was something we had never seen,” Dr. Lauer said. “It took us a while to grasp the seriousness of the problem.”

Some of the first inklings of trouble were discovered by administrators at M.D. Anderson, a prominent cancer research and treatment center. Between August 2018 and January 2019, five letters arrived at the center from the N.I.H. asking administrators to investigate the activities of five faculty members.

Dr. Peter Pisters, president of the cancer center, said he and his colleagues reviewed faculty emails, and they turned up disturbing evidence.

Among the redacted emails provided to The New York Times was one by a scientist planning to whisk proprietary test materials to colleagues in China. “I should be able to bring the whole sets of primers to you (if I can figure out how to get a dozen tubes of frozen DNA onto an airplane),” he wrote.

The redacted M.D. Anderson emails also suggest that a scientist at the medical center sent data and research to the Chinese government in exchange for a $75,000 one-year “appointment” under the Thousand Talents Program, which Beijing established a decade ago to recruit scientists to Chinese universities.

Researchers are legally obligated to disclose such payments to the N.I.H. and to their academic institutions, and the scientist had not done so, according to an internal report on the investigation.

Still another scientist at M.D. Anderson had forwarded a confidential research proposal to a contact in China, writing, “Attached please find an application about mitochondrial DNA mutation in tumor development. Please keep it to yourself.”

Administrators at M.D. Anderson said three of the scientists had resigned and one had retired. The fifth case involved a scientist whose transgressions may not be serious enough to be fired.

Dr. Xifeng Wu, who left M.D. Anderson and is now dean of the School of Public Health at Zhejiang University in China, declined to comment on the circumstances of her resignation. “I would like to focus on my research,” she said.

M.D. Anderson is not the only institution wrestling with possible scientific misconduct.

Last month, two married scientists, Yu Zhou, 49, and Li Chen, 46, who had worked at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, for a decade, were indicted on charges that they stole technology developed at the hospital and used it to apply for Chinese patents and set up biotech companies in China and the United States.

Dr. Zhou’s lawyer, Glenn Seiden, said in an email that the couple did not commit any crimes, and that Dr. Zhou is a “trailblazer” in scientific research.

In May, two scientists at Emory University in Atlanta, Dr. Li Xiao-Jiang and Dr. Li Shihua, were fired after administrators discovered that Dr. Li Xiao-Jiang had received funding from China’s Thousand Talents Program.

The couple had worked there for more than two decades, researching Huntington’s disease. University administrators declined to provide further information.

“They treated us like criminals,” Dr. Li Xiao-Jiang said in an interview near Jinan University in southern China, where he and his wife now work. He disputed the suggestion that they had failed to report ties to China.

“Our work is for humanity,” Dr. Li Shihua added. “You can’t say if I worked in China, I’m not loyal to the U.S.”

In July, Dr. Kang Zhang, the former chief of eye genetics at the University of California, San Diego, resigned after local journalists disclosed his involvement with a biotech firm in China that seemed to rely on research he had performed at the university.

Dr. Zhang, also a member of the Thousand Talents Program, did not tell the university about his role. His lawyer, Leo Cunningham, said that Dr. Zhang’s suspension was not related to his involvement with the Chinese biotech firm or the program, but instead to his conduct as an investigator in a clinical trial two years earlier.

What is coming to light, Dr. Lauer said, is “a tapestry of incidents.”

Start-up companies in China, federal officials say, were founded on scientific and medical technology that the N.I.H. developed with taxpayer money. “We know there are companies formed in China for which we funded the research,” Dr. Lauer said.

Some scientists of Chinese descent also secretly received patents in China for research conducted in the United States, according to Dr. Lauer, and some researchers in the Thousand Talents Program signed contracts that require them to provide the Chinese government with confidential results obtained in the United States or other lab discoveries.

“If the N.I.H. funded it, it should be available to U.S. taxpayers,” said Dr. McKinney, of the Association of American Medical Colleges. “But if a project is also funded in China, it is moving intellectual property to China.”

Federal and academic officials stress that they are not targeting Chinese researchers on the basis of their ethnicity. But the F.B.I.’s silence regarding how so many investigations began has exacerbated concern that the government’s efforts to uncover economic espionage may tar all Chinese and Chinese-American scientists — and make it more difficult to recruit Chinese students and scholars.

“We can’t tell who is guilty or innocent, but look at the actual effect on people of Chinese descent,” said Mr. Wu, the law professor. “People are living in fear. It is a question of impact rather than intent.”

With the Trump administration taking a harder line against China, including imposing tariffs intended to punish violations of intellectual property rights, Mr. Wu sees a sharp reversal in attitudes about China and the Chinese.

“I am getting calls and emails constantly now from ethnic Chinese — even those who are U.S. citizens — who feel threatened,” he said. But few are willing to step forward with allegations of discrimination, he added.

To Dr. Lauer, the charges of racism are unfounded. “Not all the foreign influence cases involve China,” he said. “But the vast majority do.”

The real question, he added, is how to preserve the open exchange of scientific ideas in the face of growing security concerns. At M.D. Anderson, administrators are tightening controls to make data less freely available.

People can no longer use personal laptops on the wireless network. The center has barred the use of flash drives and disabled USB ports. And all of its employees’ computers can now be monitored remotely.

The N.I.H. is clamping down, too. It recommends that reviewers of grant applications have limited ability to download or print them. Those traveling to certain regions should use loaner computers, it says, and academic institutions should be alert to frequent foreign travel by scientists, or frequent publishing with colleagues outside the United States.

The National Science Foundation has commissioned an independent scientific advisory group to recommend ways of balancing openness and security, and warned scientists it funds that they are prohibited from participating in programs like China’s Thousand Talents Program.

The F.B.I. has given research institutions tools to scan emails for keywords in Mandarin that might tip off administrators to breaches, according to Dr. McKinney.

“The effects this will have on long-term, trusting relationships are hard for us to face,” he said. “We just are not used to systematic cheating.”

Javier Hernandez contributed reporting from Beijing.