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Sen. Rob Portman introduces bill to crack down on Chinese intellectual property theft

Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman.

Spurred by cases like that of a former Cleveland Clinic researcher who is facing criminal charges for failing to disclose his ties to China, Sen. Rob Portman on Wednesday introduced legislation that would crack down on theft of U.S. research and innovations by China and other nations.

The legislation that Portman unveiled with a bipartisan group of colleagues would impose fines and prison sentences of up to five years on researchers who intentionally fail to disclose their foreign backing when they apply for federal grants. It would also require that institutions who sponsor foreign scholars tell the State Department whether their visitors will have access to sensitive technologies and allow the State Department to deny visas to those who seek access to sensitive technologies. It would also create a U.S. government-wide database of researchers who have obtained federal grants,

In an interview with reporters, Portman said technology China has stolen over the past 20 years has helped fuel the rise of its economy and military while the U.S. government “has been asleep at the switch, doing almost nothing to stop it.”

“This bill will help us stop foreign governments from stealing our research and innovation while also increasing transparency to ensure that taxpayers know when colleges and universities accept significant foreign funding,” said a statement from Portman. “We must hold countries that act in bad faith, like China, accountable and I urge my colleagues to join us in supporting this legislation.”

The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which Portman chairs, last year released a report on a Chinese program launched in 2008 called the “Thousand Talents Plan,” which encourages U.S. researchers to transmit their knowledge to China in exchange for incentives that include money, research funding and lab space. It found more than 7,000 “experts” were participating in the program by 2017.

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Last month, a former Cleveland Clinic researcher who received more than $3.6 million in National Institutes of Health grants was charged with wire fraud for failing to disclose his ties to Chinese universities and the Thousand Talents Plan.

A complaint filed against Dr. Qing Wang of Shaker Heights says he “knowingly failed” to tell NIH he held the position of Dean of the College of Life Sciences and Technology at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology and that he received grant money from the National Natural Science Foundation of China for some of the same scientific research funded by the NIH grant. It says NIH approved its grants for Wang’s Cleveland Clinic research based on his “false representations and promises.”

Investigators also said China gave Wang $3 million in research support for his lab in China. along with free travel and lodging for his trips to China, including a three-bedroom apartment on campus for his personal use. This occurred while Wang was received NIH grant money without disclosing his ties to China. Wang, who asserts his innocence, was released on $100,000 bond after an appearance before Magistrate Judge Jonathan D. Greenberg.

Portman said Wang took biological samples from Cleveland to his shadow lab in China, to replicate the federally funded research he conducted in Cleveland.

“He was lying on his applications for grant research, and yet he couldn’t be arrested for that because it’s not a crime,” said Portman. “It will be under our legislation.”

The bill’s cosponsors include Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the investigations subcommittee that Portman chairs. Carper noted that the federal government is investigating foreign hackers for trying to steal intellectual property related to coronavirus treatments from U.S. universities and health care companies.

He said the bill would protect U.S. intellectual property from “foreign governments working to steal it, hold those acting in bad faith accountable, and improve the partnerships between our researchers and their foreign partners, and preserve our economic competitiveness around the world.”

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© 2020 The Plain Dealer