By U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa
American innovation is second to none. Our creativity and forward-facing approach to everything from health care to telecom to artificial intelligence has made and kept us a world leader. It didn’t happen by accident. It’s been achieved through American ingenuity and, in part, taxpayer-funded research happening every day in universities, labs, and hospitals around the country.
But serious and ongoing threats to our taxpayer-funded research puts America at risk of falling behind countries who want to steal our place at the top. Our government and institutions must take all reasonable and necessary steps to protect the integrity of our research and ensure that the intellectual property created here does not fall victim to criminals or foreign agents. There are several ways we can do this, all of which require cooperation and vigilance from Congress and our federal agencies.
American intellectual property theft is rampant. In 2018, the Department of Justice (DOJ) investigated, charged or convicted at least 16 individuals and four corporate entities in eight separate cases involving theft of trade secrets. Over the past several years, six more individuals were either investigated, charged or convicted of stealing research from American universities.
One case involved a Chinese intelligence officer who was a deputy division director from China’s main spy agency. Another involved a number of other Chinese intelligence officers and hackers who were charged in a multi-year plan to steal sensitive commercial aviation data. In 2013, foreign researchers were charged with conspiring to steal research funded by a multi-million dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on behalf of a Chinese government entity and direct competitor of the American university where the research was conducted.
These are just some of the cases we know about.
The theft of American intellectual property by foreign agents will not stop any time soon. Federal agencies must take aggressive action to detect and deter these threats. One step federal agencies and research institutions should take is to conduct more thorough vetting of researchers working on taxpayer-funded projects. Another step is for NIH to take a more aggressive approach to ensuring that researchers disclose foreign financial contributions. According to the Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General, it recently received twelve referrals from NIH with most primarily involving the failure of researchers to disclose foreign affiliations. That is a positive development, but more must be done.
Our academic institutions have been subjected to China’s propaganda outlets through its Confucius Institutes, many of which are housed in American universities, and are directly funded by the Chinese government. China views the Confucius Institutes as a form of soft power and propaganda meant to influence a pro-China view of the world. These propaganda efforts, coupled with the effort to infiltrate our research institutions, is cause for serious concern.
For its part, Congress must conduct diligent oversight to ensure government agencies are working to identify foreign threats to research before and after grant money is awarded and reporting when researchers fail to disclose foreign financial contributions to their research.
Congress must also address the avenues through which bad actors infiltrate our industries and technology. We have to modernize our immigration laws to prevent the entry of hostile foreign actors who intend to steal intellectual property and trade secrets. Coveted high-skill positions at our research institutions and universities ought to be filled by people who want to contribute to American scientific and technological advancements, not by agents of foreign governments who seek to destroy us from within.
When I was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I sent multiple letters and held hearings on foreign threats to American intellectual property. I’m continuing these oversight efforts as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and encourage my colleagues to do the same. It’s critical that Congress understands the processes and steps that federal agencies are taking to ensure the integrity of their departments and the resulting studies produced by taxpayer-funded research.
The only way for the United States to remain a world leader and economic force is to protect the innovations that keep us moving forward. We cannot be complacent. We cannot let our guard down. Countries like China want to take our place on the world stage and they will stop at nothing to achieve that goal. It’s critical that we take every precaution to protect our taxpayer-funded research and continue to root out the waste, fraud and abuse that allows intellectual property theft to flourish.