MD Anderson Cancer Center is ousting three scientists in connection with concerns China is trying to steal U.S. scientific research, the first such publicly disclosed punishments since federal officials directed some institutions to investigate specific professors in violation of granting agency policies.
MD Anderson took the actions after receiving e-mails last year from the National Institutes of Health, the nation’s largest public funder of biomedical research, describing conflicts of interest or unreported foreign income by five faculty members. The agency, which has been assisted by the FBI, gave the cancer center 30 days to respond.
“As stewards of taxpayer dollars invested in biomedical research, we have an obligation to follow up” when asked to investigate grant recipients, Dr. Peter Pisters, president of MD Anderson, told the 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.”
Pisters said the NIH could withhold MD Anderson funding if it didn’t take action and if information provided in its grant materials is inaccurate or incomplete. The cancer center received $148 million in NIH grant money in 2018.
MD Anderson’s action comes amid heightened concern in Washington, D.C., and around the country that China and other foreign governments are exploiting U.S.-funded research for their own benefit, enlisting students and visiting scholars to pilfer intellectual property from confidential grant applications, and luring scientists to run “shadow laboratories” in their countries.
Pisters said MD Anderson’s reputation as the world’s No. 1 cancer center has made it an obvious target.
The cancer center invoked the termination process for three of the NIH-identified professors, two of whom resigned ahead of proceedings and one of whom is just beginning due process requirements, said Pisters. Officials determined termination was not warranted for one of the other professors and are still investigating a fifth.
The cancer center gave the Chronicle copies of internal documents regarding the five cases. The names of the scientists were redacted, but Pisters said all are Asian. The Chronicle and Science magazine have confirmed at least three are Chinese.
The departures are the first to become known since Dr. Francis Collins, director of the NIH, told a Senate panel earlier this month to expect related firings at institutions across the country soon. The panel and others in Congress have raised concerns about foreign theft of intellectual property at academic institutions.
The departures also follow an unprecedented Houston gathering last summer at which FBI officials warned Texas academic and medical institution leaders of the threat, particularly by insiders, and called on them to share with the agency any and all suspicious behavior and information. The meeting was one of the first public events to call attention to a new federal effort nationally to thwart economic foreign espionage occurring at the academic level.
But Pisters noted the FBI first notified MD Anderson about such concerns in 2015 during the Barack Obama administration. The cancer center consented to give the FBI access to the computer network accounts of several of its staff members in December 2017, some eight months before Collins sent academic institutions across the nation a letter alerting them to the threat and requesting help curbing “unacceptable breaches of trust and confidentiality.”
Collins told a Senate panel last week that the FBI has played “a major part in providing us information.”
Soon after Collins’ letter was sent more than 10,000 recipients of NIH grants, the NIH began emailing MD Anderson and dozens of other institutions outlining its concerns about specific individuals.
Racial profiling accusations
The crackdown has roiled Chinese and Chinese-American communities in the United States and particularly at MD Anderson and the Texas Medical Center. They contend the investigations involve racial profiling and targeting and claim the probes are driving out some researchers for relatively minor offenses, sometimes based on a misreading of science.
“Scientific research depends on the free flow of ideas,” said Frank H. Wu, president of the New York-based Committee of 100, a group of influential Chinese-Americans. “Our national interest is best advanced by welcoming people, not by racial stereotyping based on where a person comes from.”
The Committee of 100 convened a meeting in Washington, D.C., in December at which Houston’s Asian community expressed concerns to the FBI about the fear and suspicions created by the agency’s investigations and actions. And in March, a group of Chinese-American scientists voiced concern in a strongly worded letter in Science that recent rhetoric and proposals by the NIH and FBI could lead to unjust targeting of Chinese scientists.
Sources close to the MD Anderson researchers who were investigated expressed concern that the five cases don’t represent the total number of employees affected by investigations conducted by the FBI and the Houston cancer center. The sources say the number is probably more than 20, given documents they’ve reviewed that say MD Anderson gave the FBI access to 23 network accounts.
In the past 18 months months, they also note, 10 MD Anderson senior researchers or administrators of Chinese descent have retired, resigned or been placed on administrative leave. Some purportedly left of their own accord, but supporters say a toxic climate and perception of racial profiling hastened their departures. Two of the researchers subsequently took positions at Chinese institutions.
“These are the top talents foreign countries have been trying to recruit unsuccessfully,” said Steven Pei, a University of Houston professor critical of the actions by MD Anderson. “We are now pushing them out of the Texas Medical Center, out of Houston, out of Texas and out of the U.S. It seems we’re helping foreign countries to accomplish what they could not do by themselves. We are hurting the American competitiveness.”
Pisters downplayed the loss of talent, arguing that those affected involve “just a handful out of MD Anderson’s 1,700 faculty.” Citing the cancer center’s demographic breakdown — 30 percent white, 29 percent Asian, 23 percent black and 17 percent Hispanic — Pisters argued “MD Anderson faculty and employees know the institution doesn’t discriminate on the basis of gender, ethnicity, race or sexual orientation.”
Still, Pei wants to know why MD Anderson has become such an epicenter of the crackdown.
The NIH contacted Baylor College of Medicine about issues involving four of its faculty, for instance, but the Houston medical school didn’t fire any, said Adam Kuspa, Baylor’s senior vice president for research. He said the institution instead worked to educate the faculty members to make sure they disclose and fully describe foreign collaborations in the future.
Pisters said he has no way to know if MD Anderson has been harsher than other institutions. He said “it’s unfortunate a small group of individuals feel we have not been consistent with our core values.”
“In situations where individuals, small in number, have undergone investigations like this, I can understand why groups might feel that they’re being singled out,” said Pisters. “That’s not our intent. We’re simply acting on NIH letters we’ve received and our obligation as recipients of NIH funds.”
$600B in thefts
There is no disputing the threat is real. After a 2017 report that found intellectual-property theft by China costs the U.S. as much as $600 billion annually, FBI Director Christopher Wray called China “the broadest, most significant” threat to the nation and said its espionage is active in all 50 states.
In 2018, much media coverage focused on Liu Ruopeng, a billionaire Chinese inventor who came to the U.S. 13 years ago to study in a Duke University researcher’s lab and later was accused of stealing information there used to develop a so-called “invisibility cloak” on behalf of the Chinese government.
U.S. government agencies, including the NIH, have identified China’s “Thousands Talents” program as a key vehicle for transferring U.S. technology, intellectual property and know-how to China. A recruitment effort launched by the Chinese Communist Party’s powerful Organization Department, the program aimed at luring back leading researchers of Chinese descent generally has been unsuccessful. But some U.S.-based scientists have used Thousands Talents grants as a way to fund trips to China and maintain access to research teams there.
The FBI’s Counterintelligence Division’s Strategic Partnership Program argued in a 2015 handout that the program allows China to “benefit from years of scientific research conducted in the United States and “severely impacts the U.S. economy.” The Chinese government censored the term Thousand Talents last fall after a General Electric engineer who had been a grant recipient was charged with trade secrets theft in New York state.
MD Anderson’s investigations mentioned that three of the five professors were involved in the Thousand Talents program, none of whom had disclosed the affiliatoin. (By contrast, none of the investigated Baylor faculty were affiliated with the program.)
Pisters said MD Anderson permits researchers to accept such foreign funding as long as they disclose it and no single institution’s payment exceeds 25 percent of their salary and the total doesn’t exceed 50 percent. But Pisters added that the cancer center wants faculty to be aware of how Thousand Talents is designed to operate and called it “predatory.”
MD Anderson’s involvement with the FBI dates to a November 2015 letter from Perrye K. Turner, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Houston field office, to Less Stoltenberg, MD Anderson’s chief information security officer. The letter requested assistance in a “national security investigation” Turner described as “pursuant to an authorized foreign counterintelligence investigation.”
In July 2017, chief legal officer Steven Haydon received a letter from Turner about “an investigation pertaining to the possible theft of MD Anderson research and proprietary information.” A month later, Haydon was summoned to testify before a grand jury in Houston. The content of his testimony is unknown, but the inquiry came as concerns mounted nationally over intellectual property theft and influence operations linked to the Chinese government.
A third letter from the FBI was sent to Haydon in November 2017. The next month Pisters consented to provide the bureau with access to a number of staff accounts.
In August 2017, MD Anderson received its first NIH email about a specific researcher. It noted the researcher had violated several NIH policies — specifically, confidentiality of peer review, failure to disclose other research resources and possibly failing to disclose a financial conflict of interest. In the weeks that followed, NIH sent four more letters to MD Anderson, each asking for more information regarding what were described as “serious violations” by cancer center professors.
Max Weber, MD Anderson’s compliance and ethics officer, looked into the cases and responded with lengthy reports detailing email correspondences the accused researchers had with people in China and the titles that they held at Chinese institutions. He also found examples of professors sharing confidential grant application materials with unauthorized third parties; undisclosed payments by institutions in China; and the leadership of a shadow laboratory in China.
The investigations were questioned by a source familiar with one of the cases because of Weber’s lack of expertise in matters of scientific collaboration. Pisters responded that “you don’t need a scientific background to understand these ethical issues.”
In response to the foreign theat, MD Anderson in 2018 developed a plan to reduce risks. In an email, Pisters warned employees of the “accelerating risks” of intellectual theft and cyberattacks and announced staff traveling internationally will need to use loaner laptops and phones. Later, the center restricted the use of USB devices.
A few blocks away in the medical center, Baylor is revising policy to prohibit researchers from having laboratories at two locations, domestic or foreign.
The only other local academic institution to be contacted by the NIH about possible violations by a researcher was the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, which received one such letter, still under review. Neither Rice University nor the University of Houston received one.
In the meantime, Baylor and MD Anderson are still waiting to hear back from the NIH about the actions they took.
“If the NIH makes a determination the individual we determined didn’t warrant termination should have been sanctioned, we’d have to revisit employment status,” said Pisters.
This story was produced in collaboration with Science Magazine, with reporting by Mara Hvistendahl.