Scientists with ties to China ousted from US cancer center amid fears of foreign influence

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center is one of dozens of institutions that have been contacted by the US National Institutes of Health about foreign influence concerns.

(CNN)A leading cancer research center in Houston, Texas has taken action against a handful of faculty members for sharing confidential information and failing to disclose foreign ties, according to statements from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

According to documents and statements reviewed by CNN, five scientists at the institution were flagged by the US National Institutes of Health -- which funds biomedical research across the country -- "regarding a variety of threats, including data security and intellectual property loss," according to a statement by the cancer center.
Internal investigations revealed a number of infractions of ethics policies and, in a few cases, possible grounds for criminal prosecution, according to compliance reports summarizing the probes carried out by officials within MD Anderson and the University of Texas system. The reports described cases of sharing confidential information surrounding research grants, as well as foreign interests, collaborators and payments the scientists had not disclosed. In many cases this was traced back to Chinese institutions. MD Anderson said the breaches did not include patient information.
The cancer center has moved to terminate three of the scientists, two of whom resigned before that process could run its course. For the third, those proceedings are ongoing, according to an e-mailed statement from the cancer center's president, Dr. Peter W.T. Pisters.
    Of the other two researchers who were flagged, one investigation "indicated non-compliance yet did not meet a threshold to begin the termination process," Pisters said. The other investigation is still in progress.

    Issue broad in scope

    The NIH told CNN in an email that, while MD Anderson took immediate action, the issue is broader in scope: The agency has contacted 55 institutions with concerns about foreign influence as of April 11. Each of these institutions has at least one scientist identified in the concerns. However, the NIH is not commenting on specific cases.
    "These incidents are not unique to MD Anderson," the agency said in a statement, "and we remind universities to look closely at their organizations to mitigate unscrupulous practices by foreign entities."
    The investigation at MD Anderson has been brewing for some time. According to Pisters, the FBI formally notified the institution of a "national security investigation" back in 2015.
    The FBI declined to comment. The investigations were first reported by the Houston Chronicle in collaboration with Science Magazine.

    'Foreign influence'

    Officials worry overseas influence could sway funding decisions and redirect American intellectual property into foreign hands.
    In August 2018, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins sent a letter to more than 10,000 research institutions which had received or applied for NIH funding, warning that "some foreign entities have mounted systematic programs to influence NIH researchers."
    Days later, MD Anderson received a notice from the agency about one of its researchers. Others would follow.
    "We are deeply concerned about the evidence, which has been growing over the course of more than a year, that there are egregious instances where our funding of grants in this country is being taken advantage of by individuals who are not following the appropriate rules," Collins told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on April 11. "We have had multiple opportunities to interact with the FBI, who has been investigating this vigorously."
    It was as a result of what the FBI discovered that researchers at 55 institutions are now believed to be "double-dipping, receiving foreign government money without disclosing it, or in some instances, diverting intellectual property ... to China," Collins said. "Maybe most egregiously of all," he added, some researchers who peer-review grants have been accused of distributing those materials during the review process, "giving, therefore, an opportunity for somebody else's ideas to be stolen."
    While evidence of this occurring were outlined in MD Anderson's redacted compliance reports -- including unauthorized sharing of grant materials, receipt of foreign money and involvement in research overseas -- it is yet unclear how much this might have impacted the course of NIH funding decisions and to what extent it's reflective of the agency's "foreign influence" concerns when it comes to China as a whole.
    The reports, which were redacted and provided to CNN by MD Anderson, reveal multiple ties to China among the researchers in question, including Chinese research institutions and talent recruitment programs -- namely, China's Thousand Talents Program, which has come under scrutiny from US officials.
    The Chinese government describes the program as an effort to bring the top minds from overseas "who can make breakthroughs in key technologies or can enhance China's high-tech industries."
    However, in a statement to the US Senate Judiciary Committee in December, one FBI official blasted programs like Thousand Talents, describing how incentives such as "competitive salaries, state-of-the-art research facilities, and honorific titles" may come with an ulterior motive.
    "The Chinese government is attempting to acquire or steal, not only the plans and intentions of the United States government, but also the ideas and innovations of the very people that make our economy so incredibly successful," Bill Priestap, assistant director of the FBI's Counterintelligence Division, told the committee.
    According to an NIH advisory committee report from December, "These kinds of information collection efforts are not unique to China, and NIH is not the only funding agency affected."
    The NIH funds biomedical research to the tune of tens of billions of dollars per year nationwide, making it the largest public funder in the world to do so.
    According to the NIH, concerns surrounding foreign influence highlight a delicate balance between forging productive partnerships with foreign scientists while safeguarding American innovation and property.

    Source of tension

    It may also come as a source of tension among Asian or Asian-American academics.
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    In March, three professional groups for Chinese and Chinese American scientists wrote an open letter in Science Magazine to express "concerns about the recent political rhetoric and policies that single out students and scholars of Chinese descent working in the United States as threats to US national interests. These developments have led to confusion, fear, and frustration among these highly dedicated professionals, who are in danger of being singled out for scapegoating, stereotyping, and racial profiling."
    The groups cited "several high-profile cases in which Chinese-American scientists were wrongfully accused of spying" and warned that NIH policies surrounding collaboration, some not clearly defined, could be implemented with bias.
      In a response to the letter, NIH director Collins said that the agency had "carefully considered how to ensure fairness of the grant process and intellectual property principles, while seeking to minimize jeopardy to innocent foreign nationals and important international collaborations."
      In response to concerns about profiling, Pisters said that MD Anderson "acted without regard to race, ethnicity or nationality and solely based upon alleged malfeasance" raised by federal authorities.