June 03,2019

Grassley Op-ed: Iowa not immune to foreign threats to taxpayer-funded research

Iowa not immune to foreign threats to taxpayer-funded research

By: Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa


How would you feel about your tax dollars being spent on research projects that were targeted by foreign governments in an effort to steal U.S. intellectual property? 


Taxpayer-funded research has been integral in keeping American medical, defense, information technology and many other products at the forefront of the world’s market. Our scientists push the envelope to make crucial discoveries and better products, whether it be vaccines, biotechnology or other types of intellectual property. These projects can produce important breakthroughs for many of our industries, our country and the world. 


However, American taxpayer-funded research is a constant target for foreign thieves. Though not the only threat, China is by far the most prolific. 


Last year, as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, I held a hearing on China’s non-traditional espionage against the United States. During that hearing, I broached the issue of China’s focus on our research institutions and taxpayer-funded research. Since then, more information has come to light about the extent to which the Chinese government is trying to steal U.S. intellectual property. 


In 2013, Chinese nationals were charged with conspiring to steal research funded by a multi-million dollar National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant for the benefit of a Chinese governmental entity and a direct competitor of the American university where the research was conducted.


In an August 20, 2018, letter to NIH grantee institutions, NIH called attention to a series of threats posed by foreign entities to the integrity of U.S. biomedical research. In that letter, NIH warned that foreign actors have “mounted systematic programs to influence NIH researchers and peer reviewers,” may have worked to divert intellectual property produced by NIH-supported research to other countries and may have contributed resources to NIH-funded researchers in ways which could impact the integrity of the research. 


In January of this year, the Health and Human Services Inspector General notified me that NIH recently made 12 referrals to the IG, primarily involving the primary researchers on NIH grants conducting medical research at U.S. universities. Those researchers allegedly failed to meet NIH requirements to disclose foreign affiliations on their grant applications. That’s a serious problem. 


Researchers who are secretly supported by a foreign government while working on U.S. research projects can be more susceptible to influence and control of that foreign government. It’s critical that we know who is financially supporting researchers. That way, we can better understand whether they might be more dedicated to securing the interests of a foreign country than to the integrity of American research. 


This may not seem like an issue Iowans need to care about, but the fact is that foreign agents looking to steal taxpayer-funded research are operating in our own backyard.


In 2011, Chinese nationals tried to steal genetically modified corn seeds from an Iowa field with the intent to send them back to China. The New York Times reported that they worked for Chinese technology and seed companies. One was arrested and five others were indicted on charges of stealing trade secrets. 


Those seeds were the product of years of research and development. The Chinese Government has characterized their efforts as “picking flowers in foreign lands to make honey in China.”


Whether in Iowa, or in other parts of the country, we must remind ourselves that there is an ongoing threat to taxpayer-funded research that targets American academic institutions, including the University of Iowa.  And beyond pure research, the Chinese government in particular has tried other avenues to leverage itself in our society to their benefit and our detriment. Take for instance the Chinese Government’s efforts to incorporate itself into our educational system via Confucius Institutes. These Institutes are directly funded by the United Front Work Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and are used as propaganda outlets to influence a pro-China view of the world. The University of Iowa has hosted one on its campus since 2006. 


In a Senate intelligence committee hearing last year, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned of China’s aggressive efforts at U.S. colleges and universities and specifically referenced the activities at Confucius Institutes. Despite concerns, the Dean of International Programs defended the University of Iowa’s Confucius Institute, citing that the partnership “allows us to make every dollar go further.” Since that time, the Board of Regents voted to close Iowa’s Confucius Institute in order to save money the university was contributing toward its operating expenses. However, the university has funds in an endowment from the Chinese government that the institute director has indicated could be used to keep the center open for five more years. The current contract with the Chinese government expires in July. 


Foreign threats to taxpayer-funded research are real, aggressive and show no signs of slowing down. That’s why this week, the Senate Finance Committee, which I chair, will hold a hearing on these threats and what can be done to strengthen the integrity of taxpayer-funded research and preserve the valuable work produced in this country. 


Over the past several months, I’ve also sent oversight letters to NIH, HHS, and the HHS IG, as well as the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense, concerning current and potential threats to taxpayer-funded research. Congress and the executive branch need to work together to determine if the government has the right mix of capabilities and focus to detect these threats, combat them and deter them in order to protect our research and any intellectual property created from it.


Truly free collaboration and exchange of information is only possible when data and sources are credible, and the research process can be trusted. That trust is destroyed when foreign governments and other entities interfere in our research for their gain and to the detriment of the United States.