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China recruits researchers to steal US technology, says Senate report

Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman.

China is recruiting U.S. scientists and researchers and encouraging them to transfer U.S. taxpayer funded intellectual property to China for China’s own economic and military gain, says a new report from the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Ohio GOP Sen. Rob Portman.

The report says a Chinese program launched in 2008 called the “Thousand Talents Plan” encourages researchers in the United States to transmit their knowledge to China in exchange for incentives that include money, research funding and lab space, and the country “unfairly uses the American research and expertise it obtains for its own economic and military gain.”

More than 7,000 “experts” were participating in the plan by 2017, the report says.

Although federal agencies discovered false statements that China-affiliated researchers made in applying for U.S. grants, as well as some of their thefts of U.S. intellectual property, the report says grant-making agencies didn’t crack down and the FBI and other agencies still haven’t developed a coordinated response to mitigate the threat.

The FBI didn’t identify the talent recruitment plan as a threat until it had been in existence for a decade, the report says, and it withheld the names of suspected talent recruitment program participants from U.S. grant-making agencies for nearly two years, hindering their ability to respond.

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Universities told Portman’s committee they don’t fully understand the scope and scale of the threat or know how to counter it. An FBI spokeswoman said the agency will respond to the report at a Tuesday committee hearing.

“These talent plans are a win-win for China,” said a statement from Portman. China wins twice. First, the American taxpayer funds China’s research and development. “Second, China uses that research to improve its economic and military status. This is unacceptable.”

Portman said he plans to work with the top Democrat on his subcommittee, Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, on bipartisan legislation “to end this abuse of American research, intellectual property, and taxpayer money.”

While the report does not identify particular researchers who transferred U.S. technology to China, it says that one participant in the Chinese program downloaded more than 30,000 files from a U.S. Department of Energy lab without authorization before returning to China. And it says another used intellectual property from working at an Energy Department lab to file for a U.S. patent in the name of a Chinese institution, “effectively stealing the U.S. government-funded research for the Chinese institution. One educational institution contacted by Portman’s subcommittee said it had no idea that one of its researchers spent more than half the year working in China.

“These failures continue to undermine the integrity of the American research enterprise and endanger our national security,” said the report.

Subcommittee investigators say other countries also try to steal U.S. research, but China has the most sophisticated program. They say many researchers participating in China’s “Thousand Talents Plan” aren’t from China and most of the 369,000 Chinese students currently studying in the United States have nothing to do with the program.

They said China is systematically targeting research in areas it prioritizes, such as software parts and integrated circuit manufacturing, high end machine tools and manufacturing equipment, water pollution control, genetically modified organisms, manned spaceflight, oil and gas fields development, and development of new drugs and disease cures.

The report recommends that the U.S. research community better monitor its collaboration with foreign nationals, and investigate allegations of failure to disclose conflicts of interest, and that federal law enforcement should identify entities in the United States that broker talent recruitment for foreign governments. It also suggests that grant-making agencies shouldn’t award U.S. funding to participants of foreign talent recruitment programs without full disclosure of those programs terms and conditions.

The report is the third Portman’s subcommittee has released on China-related improprieties. Earlier this year, it released a report that criticized a lack of transparency at “Confucius Institutes” that the Chinese government runs to teach Chinese language and culture at more than 100 U.S. colleges and universities. Last year, it released a report that described how deadly fentanyl from China was being sent to the United States through the mail.

Rocky River Republican Rep. Anthony Gonzalez said universities throughout Ohio are doing cutting edge research that’s made them a top target for intellectual property theft from China. He introduced legislation in May with a bipartisan group of House Science Space and Technology Committee members that would improve coordination between intelligence agencies, security and science agencies, and universities to combat academic espionage. He says he hopes his legislation will be included in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.

“China has been very deliberate about identifying technology of the future and grabbing the best and brightest from American universities and bringing them to China,” said Gonzalez. “It is a huge problem, I think.”

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© 2019 The Plain Dealer