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FBI Admits Failures in Protecting American Research from Chinese Theft

(Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

On Tuesday, a senior FBI official said he wished the agency had been more proactive in preventing the recruitment of U.S. researchers by Beijing, after a bipartisan Senate report accused federal agencies of failing to adequately monitor the systematic exploitation of U.S. science research by the Chinese government.

“With our present-day knowledge of the threat from Chinese plans, we wish we had taken more rapid and comprehensive action in the past,” John Brown, assistant director of the counterintelligence division at the FBI, told the Senate subcommittee chaired by Rob Portman (R., Ohio) and Tom Carper (D., Del.). “The time to make up for that is now.”

The report details efforts by the Chinese to offer compensation to U.S.-based researchers in the “Thousand Talents Plan,” resulting in the secret and illegal transfer of intellectual property to Beijing. The efforts were concentrated on Chinese-born U.S. workers but also engaged with non-ethnic Chinese.

The report cited a number of examples, including an Energy Department–funded researcher who stole more than 30,000 electronic files from an unnamed national lab before leaving for China, a national-lab employee who accepted a joint appointment at a Chinese university as part of the Thousand Talents Plan and used patent information to file a similar patent with Chinese collaborators, and a physiology researcher whose work was funded by the National Institutes of Health and allegedly transferred work meant to be performed in the U.S. to Tsinghua Medical School.

“These failures continue to undermine the integrity of the American research enterprise and endanger our national security,” the report said. It recommended that the government consider revising a Reagan-era directive that called for unrestricted research access. Federal agencies need to “assess whether openly sharing some types of fundamental research is in the nation’s interest,” it states.

China responded by calling U.S. accusations that China was using the program to steal intellectual property groundless.

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