Senate report faults slow FBI response to Chinese 'brain gain' scheme

Jon WardSenior Political Correspondent
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images, AP
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images, AP

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan Senate investigation has found deficiencies in the FBI’s response to recruitment efforts of U.S.-based scientists and researchers by the Chinese government, and is pushing the agency to do more to work with universities and federal research agencies that hand out billions of dollars in grants.

“American taxpayer funded research has contributed to China’s global rise over the last 20 years,” reads a report from Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del. Portman chairs the Homeland Security Committee’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), and Carper is the top-ranking Democrat.

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The report estimates U.S. taxpayer funding for research to be around $150 billion annually. Researchers ordinarily publish findings that are not national-security-related, but the report found that the proprietary methods and data undergirding publicly available scientific research are being co-opted for China’s benefit through a program backed by the Chinese government. It doesn’t put a dollar figure on the value of the information that China acquires through this “brain gain” strategy, which Beijing began in the early 2000s.

“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,” the report states.

Portman and Carper will hold a hearing Tuesday to hear from a top FBI official, in addition to representatives from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy and the State Department.

Over the last two decades, “China openly recruited U.S.-based researchers, scientists, and experts in the public and private sector to provide China with knowledge and intellectual capital in exchange for monetary gain and other benefits,” the PSI report states. “At the same time, the federal government’s grant-making agencies did little to prevent this from happening, nor did the FBI and other federal agencies develop a coordinated response to mitigate the threat.”

The FBI declined to comment ahead of the hearing.

The PSI report focuses on one Chinese government initiative in particular, known as the Thousand Talents Plan (TTP), which aimed to recruit 2,000 “scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and finance experts” with “salaries, research funding, lab space, and other incentives.”

The plan subsequently more than tripled its goal, netting “more than 7,000 ‘high-end professionals,’ including several Nobel laureates.”

Often, researchers signed binding contracts with Chinese institutions that “incentivize[d] members to lie on grant applications to U.S. grant-making agencies,” hiding their work in China from U.S. agencies or institutions.

Sen. Rob Portman answers questions from the media as he returns to a hearing on Capitol Hill in September. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
Sen. Rob Portman answers questions from the media as he returns to a hearing on Capitol Hill in September. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

One person involved in the TTP was arrested in 2014. Yu Long, a Chinese citizen who was a legal permanent resident of the U.S., was apprehended by authorities at Newark International Airport in New Jersey while trying to transport proprietary information about jet engines used in the U.S. military’s F-22 and F-35 fighter planes. He was using this information to apply for multiple TTP grants while working for an American defense contractor company, United Technologies.

Long pleaded guilty and served two and a half years in prison.

The report lists other examples, such as an unnamed professor who did work on “special antibodies” in the field of cellular and molecular physiology through an NIH grant. This person received a year of unpaid leave and used it to go to China and work at Tsinghua Medical School in Beijing, receiving a full salary there, and ultimately ended up conducting some of the research originally funded by NIH at Tsinghua. The researcher did not disclose his or her work in China to the U.S. institution where the person was based.

Another unnamed researcher was an investigator on an NIH grant from the National Cancer Institute, and signed a contract with a Chinese institution through the TTP that required them to work “at least 9 months” in China from 2014 to 2018, and then mandated that this individual resign their U.S. position in 2019 and work full-time in China. 

A PSI investigator told reporters Monday that the FBI was slow to react to this Chinese initiative because often Chinese institutions openly promoted the work of U.S.-based researchers on their websites, and so anything out in the open did not appear to be “nefarious.”

But over the past year or two, the Chinese government has “scrubbed online references to its talent recruitment plans,” according to the report. “For example, China deleted news articles featuring Thousand Talent Plan members, Chinese universities stopped promoting the program on their websites, and the official Thousand Talent Plan site deleted the names of scientists participating in the program.”

Sen. Tom Carper speaks at a Homeland Security Committee hearing in 2018. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
Sen. Tom Carper speaks at a Homeland Security Committee hearing in 2018. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

That only increases the need for the FBI and State Department to work more closely with research agencies and universities to make them aware that these grants or awards from China are “not just Chinese versions of Fulbright or Rhodes scholarships” but in fact “very different,” the investigator said.

Among the report’s recommendations is the suggestion that “federal agencies should declassify and disseminate more information on foreign talent recruitment plans ... so that U.S. research institutions can effectively mitigate risks associated with foreign talent recruitment plans.”

Some experts believe that China poses more of a technological threat to the U.S. than a military one.

“The threat China poses to the U.S. is smaller than many in Washington believe. ... China is a regional, but not a global, military power,” said Ian Bremmer, founder of the Eurasia Group, in a recent speech. “The greatest source of U.S.-China conflict comes from technology. Here, China is, today, a true superpower.”

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