Three scientists ousted from top US cancer research center over concerns they provided confidential information to China
MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston has ousted three scientists over concerns that the researchers had connections to China's attempts to steal U.S. intellectual property.
The move followed emails from the National Institutes of Health last year that pointed to conflicts of interest or unreported foreign income by five professors, the Houston Chronicle reported. The center was given 30 days to respond to the investigation, which was assisted by the FBI.
"As stewards of taxpayer dollars invested in biomedical research, we have an obligation to follow up," Peter Pisters, president of MD Anderson Cancer Center, told the newspaper. "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."
If MD Anderson didn't take action, the NIH could have withheld the center's grant funding. The center received $148 million in NIH grants last year.
MD Anderson is ranked as the No. 1 cancer center in the world.
What's the story?
The center began the termination process for three of the five professors suspected of espionage. Two resigned before the proceedings began, and one has just started the process.
Officials found that firing one of the professors wasn't necessary. A fifth professor remains under investigation.
The terminations come amid the federal government's heightened concern around foreign governments' attempts to capitalize on U.S.-funded research to use students and visiting scholars to steal confidential information from grant applications. The intellectual property is used to operate "shadow laboratories" in their home countries.
All five professors were of Asian descent, according to the Houston Chronicle, and at least three are Chinese.
Three of the five were believed to be involved with China's Thousand Talents program, which Pisters described as "predatory." The U.S. government, including the NIH, believes the program is the main source for handing over U.S. intellectual property to China.
While MD Anderson policy allows participation in the program, it requires disclosure of all foreign sources of research. None of the researchers had disclosed any involvement.
When did the cancer center first learn of a possible breach?
The FBI first requested the cancer center's assistance in a "national security investigation" in November 2015 that it described as "pursuant to an authorized foreign counterintelligence investigation."
It wasn't until August 2018 that the NIH revealed the name of a specific researcher who had violated several NIH policies, according to the report. Among the NIH violations disclosed was confidentiality of peer review, failure to disclose other research resources, and possibly failing to disclose a financial conflict of interest.
Four more letters were sent to MD Anderson requesting further information about "serious violations" by professors. Max Weber, MD Anderson's compliance and ethics officer, responded to the NIH's request. He provided detailed information that showed the accused researchers had corresponded with people in China who held positions at institutions there.
Weber showed examples of the professors sharing confidential grant information with unauthorized third parties, along with undisclosed payments from Chinese institutions and the leadership of a shadow laboratory in China.
According to the report, Weber didn't disclose evidence that MD Anderson proprietary data was transferred to China or other countries.
Will the researchers be charged with a crime?
It's unknown whether the scientists will face federal charges or deportation.
FBI spokeswoman Christina Garza told the newspaper that the agency "does not confirm or deny the existence of any investigation."
In 2017, the FBI reported that theft of intellectual property by China costs the U.S. up to $600 billion each year.