WASHINGTON — The United States government has failed to stop China from stealing intellectual property from American universities and lacks a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the threat, a congressional report concluded Monday.
The report says the FBI should be more effective and consistent in warning colleges and universities about the threat of Chinese economic and industrial espionage. It also says agencies that award research grants or provide visas for scientists don't do enough to monitor or track the recipients, and says universities themselves must do a better job identifying foreign funding sources and conflicts of interest among scientists on their campuses.
The problem is especially urgent, says the report from the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, because billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded research have “contributed to China’s global rise over the last 20 years” and to its goal of being a world leader in science and technology by 2050.
“As American policy makers navigate an increasingly complicated relationship with China, it is not in our national security interest to fund China’s economic and military development with taxpayer dollars,” the report says.
The report is the most recent government study to analyze Chinese intellectual property theft on college campuses and to scrutinize the shortcomings of government agencies in addressing the problem. It focuses on Chinese programs that recruit scientists with access to cutting-edge technology in the U.S. and incentivize them to conduct research for Beijing’s gain and even to steal the work of American academics.
In recent years, the report says, the programs have been exploited by scientists who have downloaded sensitive research files before returning to China, filed patents based on U.S. research, lied on grant applications and failed to disclose money they’d received from Chinese institutions.
“The U.S. academic community is in the crosshairs of not only foreign competitors contending for the best and brightest, but also of foreign nation states that seek to transfer valuable intellectual capital and steal intellectual property,” the report states. “As the academic community looks to the federal government for guidance and direction on mitigating threats, the U.S. government must provide effective, useful, timely and specific threat information and tools to counter the threats.”
The report takes aim at the lack of transparency in how the programs are run, recommending that agencies that distribute research grants stop funding participants in them absent full disclosure of the terms and conditions of membership.
The most prominent of the programs, known as the Thousand Talents Plan, has gone underground amid heightened U.S. scrutiny, with some Chinese government websites deleting online references to it. But it’s continued operating. Participants are asked to sign legally binding contracts that include non-disclosure agreements and that make clear that Chinese institutions will retain the rights to at least some of the intellectual property created by the researcher in the U.S.
The report singles out multiple agencies for criticism, saying for instance that the National Science Foundation — which funds about a quarter of all federally funded basic research at colleges and universities — has taken insufficient steps to vet grantees and avoid misappropriation of their funds. It cites as one example a Virginia Tech researcher who was accused of using NSF grants for research he knew had already been done in China.
In a statement Monday, the NSF said it is in the process of clarifying policy guidance for researchers on requirements to disclose foreign and domestic funding. It has also barred members of its workforce from participating in talent recruitment programs operated by certain countries, and has commissioned a study on how to “maintain balance between openness and security of science.”
“This is a challenging and important issue,” the NSF said.
The report says the Energy Department clarified only this year that employees and contractors are prohibited from participating in foreign talent recruitment programs, and that the State Department does not systematically track visa applicants linked to China’s recruitment programs even though some applicants have stolen research in the past. The State Department said it was aware of the report and reviewing it.
In addition, the report says the FBI “has yet to develop an effective, nationwide strategy to warn universities, government laboratories, and the broader public of the risks of foreign talent recruitment plans.” It says FBI headquarters did not take centralized control of the bureau’s response until the middle of last year, and that the FBI itself was slow to recognize the threat from talent recruitment plans.
The Associated Press last month, relying on hundreds of pages of documents obtained through public records requests, reported that the FBI has been reaching out to colleges and universities across the countries to warn them of the threat. But the report says universities are mixed in their response. In one case, according to the report, the FBI provided a school with a list of suspected participants in the Thousand Talents Plan but did not say what to do next.
An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment on the report ahead of a Senate hearing Tuesday on the same topic.
FBI officials previously told AP that the bureau had received consistently positive feedback from universities about the outreach efforts, and that the FBI is committed to helping universities understand the scope of the threat and how to protect their research. They said they consider the briefings vital because they say universities, accustomed to fostering international and collaborative environments, haven't historically been as attentive to security as they should be.
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