A concerning proportion of scientists — so far 54 in all — have been fired or resigned due to an investigation by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is looking into the researchers’ undisclosed ties to foreign institutions.1
While Charles Lieber, the former head of Harvard’s chemistry department, is one of the highest profile names in the investigation, NIH has been investigating a total of 189 scientists from 87 institutions.
Among them, 93% received undisclosed support from China, and many had active NIH grants while accepting foreign grants that were not disclosed. About 75% of those being investigated had received an active NIH grant, and close to half had at least two of them. In all, 285 active grants totaling $164 million were counted among those being investigated.
NIH director Francis Collins described the information as “sobering,” noting, “It’s not what we had hoped, and it’s not a fun task.”2
70% of Researchers Did Not Disclose Foreign Grants
In an astonishing glimpse into what appears to be a covert recruitment program, 133, or 70%, of the researchers being investigated did not disclose to the NIH that they had received foreign grants. More than half (54%) also did not disclose their participation in a foreign talent program, while 9% hid ties to a foreign company and 4% did not disclose a foreign patent.3,4
The investigation is part of larger efforts to limit threats to the U.S. economy and national security, as cutting-edge technologies and other information at the forefront of new industries that are being supported by federally funded research could be flowing into the wrong hands. A broader investigation is also ongoing, with NIH highlighting 399 scientists “of possible concern,” 121 of which the Federal Bureau of Investigation is also investigating.
According to Dr. Michael Lauer, NIH’s deputy director for extramural research, after the NIH looked into the scientists “of possible concern,” 63% of the investigations came back positive, revealing the true scope of the underhanded dealings.5
China’s ‘Thousand Talent Plan’
In an “integrity update” to a senior advisory panel working on foreign influences on research, Lauer highlighted China’s talent recruitment plans as a threat to the U.S. research enterprise.6 The Thousand Talents Plan (TTP), created by the Chinese Communist Party in 2008, was said to be a method to create an innovative society, but has raised red flags for posing a threat to U.S. technology endeavors.
“[O]ver the years, the program, which is estimated to have had approximately 7,000 participants, has become extremely controversial, generating deep concern within the U.S. government about Chinese IP theft,” the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) explained.7
Lauer’s presentation also homed in on the risks of the TPP, quoting a committee hearing from the Department of Homeland Security & Government Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which noted in November 2019:8
“Thousand Talent Plan members sign legally binding contracts with Chinese institutions, like universities and research institutions. The contracts can incentivize members to lie on [US] grant applications, set up ‘shadow labs’ in China … and, in some cases, transfer U.S. scientists’ hard-earned intellectual capital.
Some of the contracts also contain nondisclosure provisions and require the Chinese government’s permission to terminate the agreement … These provisions are in stark contrast to the U.S. research community’s basic norms, values, and principles.”9
In December 2019, Van Andel Research Institute (VARI) in Grand Rapids, Michigan, agreed to pay a $5.5 million settlement amid allegations that it violated the False Claims Act by submitting federal grant applications to NIH that failed to disclose Chinese government grants received by two VARI researchers.
Allegations also included that VARI intentionally “made certain factual representations to NIH with deliberate ignorance or reckless disregard for the truth regarding the Chinese grants.”10
Bioweapons Lab Collaborated With Wuhan Lab
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the NIH, sent a warning to 10,000 academic institutions warning of foreign threats to U.S. biomedical research in 2018. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, even more scrutiny is being placed on the ties between China, including Wuhan, and U.S. academia, especially as the idea that SARS-CoV-2 originated in a bioweapons laboratory in Wuhan, China, gains traction.
The Galveston National Laboratory (GNL), which is part of the University of Texas, is a level 4 laboratory that studies highly dangerous pathogens.
It is now being investigated, as it had approximately 24 contracts with Chinese universities and technology companies, along with ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology and exchanges between national security scientists and research sharing. This could be a red flag, as Stephane Segal, a political economist at CSIS, told Fox News:11
“Increased collaboration between the United States and China is consistent with a general trend toward greater cross-border collaboration in science globally; however, the data also show a heavier reliance on bilateral collaboration with one another than with any other single country.
At the same time, the U.S. intelligence community has accused China of exploiting scientific collaboration and ‘stealing innovation.'”
Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific security chair for the Hudson Institute, further told Fox News that, due to the FBI and NIH investigations, “The scope of China’s exploitation of our open universities, including medical, biology and other scientific labs, is only recently coming into focus.”12 Further:
“In almost all cases, the alleged theft of biomedical research information was done by Chinese citizens or Americans of Chinese descent. Bit by bit, China found ways into government scientific labs.”
Former Harvard Chemist Charged for Ties to China
The former chairman of the Harvard department of chemistry, nanoscience expert Charles Lieber, Ph.D., was arrested in early 2020 by federal agencies, suspected of illegal dealings with China.13
Lieber joined Chin’s TTP in 2012 and allegedly oversaw the Nano Key Laboratory, a joint collaboration by the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) and Harvard, although Harvard officials claimed they had no knowledge of the lab before 2015. In my interview with bioweapons expert Francis Boyle, Boyle dismissed the idea that Harvard was unaware Lieber was working on nanotechnology for biological materials with the Chinese as “preposterous.”
In February 2020, Andrew Lelling, U.S. attorney for the Massachusetts district, said that Lieber isn’t being prosecuted because he was a world-renowned Harvard chemist or because the Department of Justice thinks he’s a spy. Rather, the concern came from the allegation that Lieber was paid to perform research for China, then failed to disclose the relationship, making it possible that he could succumb to pressure from China in the future.
Reportedly, Lieber received more than $1.5 million from China for research purposes along with $50,000 a month in salary and about $158,000 in living expenses,14 all while “brazenly” hiding the connection. “That is a corrupting level of money,” Lelling said. “When people begin to hide things, that’s when law enforcement authorities get all excited.”15
Lieber had also received more than $15 million in grant funding from NIH and the Department of Defense — grants that require the disclosure of any foreign financial conflicts of interest.16 In January 2020, the U.S. Attorney’s Office charged Lieber with “making a false statement to federal investigators about his financial ties to a university and foreign talent recruitment program in China.”17 According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ):
“The complaint alleges that in 2018 and 2019, Lieber lied about his involvement in the Thousand Talents Plan and affiliation with WUT. On or about, April 24, 2018, during an interview with investigators, Lieber stated that he was never asked to participate in the Thousand Talents Program, but he ‘wasn’t sure’ how China categorized him.
In November 2018, NIH inquired of Harvard whether Lieber had failed to disclose his then-suspected relationship with WUT and China’s Thousand Talents Plan. Lieber caused Harvard to falsely tell NIH that Lieber ‘had no formal association with WUT’ after 2012, that ‘WUT continued to falsely exaggerate’ his involvement with WUT in subsequent years, and that Lieber ‘is not and has never been a participant in’ China’s Thousand Talents Plan.”18
Two Chinese nationals who were engaged in research programs at Massachusetts universities were also charged. This included Yanqing Ye, who was charged with visa fraud, making false statements, acting as an agent of a foreign government and conspiracy, and Zaosong Zheng, who was charged with attempting to smuggle 21 vials of biological research to China, along with making false, fictitious or fraudulent statements.19
The Ongoing ‘China Initiative’ Began in 2018
The DOJ’s ongoing campaign to identify and stop so-called “nontraditional collaborators” — known as the China Initiative — began in November 2018. Most of the cases involve scientists in academia or high-tech industries, with varying levels of allegations.
In some cases, prosecutors ask universities to reign in researchers who have stepped out of bounds without actually committing a felony. In other cases, official charges are filed. In deciding who to prosecute, Lelling told Science they evaluate several factors, asking, “Is there deception? How much money was involved? What kind of technology was transferred? And what other steps did a researcher take to develop the relationship?”20
It’s important to keep in mind, NIH noted, that U.S. scientists routinely collaborate with researchers from foreign countries, and such collaborations are essential for productive research. “We must not reject brilliant minds working honestly and collaboratively to provide hope and healing,” NIH’s integrity update explained.21
Still, Lelling described U.S. researchers accepting support from Chinese researchers while also receiving federal funding as a “dangerous game” that could easily backfire, telling Science:22
“The Chinese government has a very strategic approach to obtaining technology. It targets researchers who specialize in areas where the Chinese are deficient, in the hopes that they can piggyback on their expertise to close that strategic gap.
What concerns us … is that a scientist who accepts their support becomes dependent on it to the point where they are willing to accept [an assignment] from the Chinese government or a Chinese university for whatever it is they need.
Those of us that work on public corruption cases develop a radar for when person or entity A is attempting to coopt or corrupt person or entity B. And a large enough amount of money can shift loyalties.”