U.S. Officials Warn Health Researchers: China May Be Trying to Steal Your Data

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has warned scientists doing biomedical research at American universities that they may be targets of Chinese spies trying to steal and exploit information from their laboratories.

Scientists and universities receiving funds from the National Institutes of Health for cutting-edge research need to tighten their security procedures and take other precautions, said a panel of experts commissioned by the agency to investigate “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 N.I.H.,” the panel said in a report last month to the director of the N.I.H., Dr. Francis S. Collins.

“Nontraditional collectors of information,” as Dr. Collins and Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director, call the data thieves, have shared intellectual property with Beijing, run “shadow laboratories” in China and even pilfered biomedical secrets from confidential grant applications — all using a research system funded by American taxpayers.

“N.I.H. has basically been operating on the principle that everyone is well intentioned,” said Scott Kennedy, an expert on China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who briefed the N.I.H. working group. “Then they run smack dab into the challenge of China, which has millions of researchers scrambling for money and for fame and for national glory. That creates an environment where some people may feel pressure to skirt, ignore or break the rules.”

In some cases, Dr. Collins and Mr. Wray said, Chinese graduate students or visitors have taken intellectual property from American laboratories and given it to Chinese scientists or arms of the Chinese government, which published and commercialized the findings.

In other cases, scientists who received grants from the N.I.H. had shadow laboratories in China, which also received funds from the Chinese government. The foreign funding and affiliations were, in some cases, unknown to the National Institutes of Health and even to the American universities where the scientists worked.

Particularly worrisome to American officials was the finding that China had somehow obtained confidential information from applications for N.I.H. research grants. Under federal law, the N.I.H. uses an elaborate process of peer review to evaluate applications, and information in the applications — providing valuable insights into some of the world’s most advanced biomedical research — is supposed to remain confidential.

Congress has poured money into the institutes, which have a budget of $39 billion this year, up 30 percent from 2014, and lawmakers say the agency has been phenomenally productive. More than $4 out of every $5 is distributed to researchers around the country studying cancer, heart disease, diabetes and myriad other conditions.

In a letter to more than 10,000 institutions that receive grants from the N.I.H., Dr. Collins said he was concerned about the “sharing of confidential information on grant applications by N.I.H. peer reviewers with others, including foreign entities.”

N.I.H. officials said they had already taken some steps, like the letter, to remind grantees of their responsibilities and were having their lawyers review other possible measures to tighten security. The Trump administration has broadly sought to crack down on what it views as Chinese theft of American technology and has, for example, moved to limit the duration of visas for some Chinese students in certain high-tech fields.

The expert panel said that “peer review is a cornerstone of N.I.H. activities,” so violations, though uncommon, are “extremely problematic.”

The institutes confirmed “breaches in the integrity” of the peer review process, but refused to provide details, saying some cases were still under investigation.

“The biomedical research enterprise is under constant threat by risks to the security of intellectual property and the integrity of peer review,” Dr. Collins said, and “the magnitude of these risks is increasing.”

Health officials are trying to balance the need to protect against foreign threats with the openness and collaboration that have long been prized by scientists. “The vast majority of foreign nationals make incredibly important contributions to American science,” Dr. Collins said.

The chairman of the panel, Dr. M. Roy Wilson, the president of Wayne State University, in Detroit, said a Chinese talent-recruitment program appeared to be “a particular source of many of these infractions.” The 10-year-old program, known as the Thousand Talents Plan, aims to lure global experts from Western universities and private companies to work in China and build its capabilities in science and technology.

China has seen a surge in spending on science and technology in the past decade, along with a huge increase in the number of articles published by Chinese scientists in peer-reviewed journals, according to the National Science Foundation.

The F.B.I. works with universities to make them aware of the risks and has even circulated a guide to “academic espionage tradecraft.”

But Mr. Wray, the bureau director, told Congress last year that “the level of naïveté on the part of the academic sector about this creates its own issues.”

China, he said, is “exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere.”

Researchers who receive N.I.H. grants are supposed to report other sources of financial support for their work, but the requirements are somewhat vague and have not been vigorously enforced.

“It is not clear that these disclosure requirements adequately address the significant and pervasive threats posed by foreign entities to our research institutions and the integrity of taxpayer-funded studies,” Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, said in a recent letter to Dr. Collins.

Far from denying or minimizing the problem, some American college presidents and medical school deans welcome federal efforts to alert them to foreign influences affecting the work of their faculty members.

“In our perception, this is a very serious problem,” said Dr. Ross McKinney Jr., the chief scientific officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges, whose members receive large amounts of money from the N.I.H. “We still view research as a collaborative endeavor, but there is a sense that there may be some cheating going on.”

Dr. McKinney said it appeared that researchers with well-funded “shadow labs” in China had been instructed not to disclose their existence to the N.I.H. because few did so.

This had two perverse effects. “Those scientists could have a competitive advantage over other people applying for N.I.H. funds because they had two labs doing the work of one,” Dr. McKinney said. “In addition, they could claim that the discoveries occurred in China, even if they were really a result of research originally performed in the U.S., and the Chinese lab could keep the ideas as trade secrets for further development.”

Under federal law, economic espionage involving the misappropriation of trade secrets for the benefit of a foreign government is a crime.

Dr. Lawrence A. Tabak, the principal deputy director of the National Institutes of Health, said that the “N.I.H. is not a law enforcement agency” and “does not conduct law enforcement investigations.”

But he said his agency worked closely with the Justice Department to prevent “unacceptable breaches of trust and confidentiality that undermine the integrity of U.S. biomedical research.”

The advisory panel, which had eight members, including five university presidents, said the N.I.H. should expand the disclosure requirements and make them more explicit, to “reduce the risk of data misappropriation.”

The N.I.H. has told universities that federal officials also want to know about “duplicative funding for the same or similar projects.” And it urged universities to “reach out to an F.B.I. field office” to obtain additional information.

“Even though you could argue that what we’re doing doesn’t relate to the national security, in a sense it does relate to our economic security,” Dr. Tabak said. “And it’s produced with taxpayer dollars.”