When U.S. taxpayers send their hard-earned money to the government, they shouldn’t worry that it’s being used to fuel economic and military growth in China. But that’s exactly what’s happening today. Every year, more than $150 billion in U.S. taxpayer money goes towards cutting-edge research conducted at our excellent network of universities and research institutions, helping us remain the global leader in science and technology. However, based on an eight-month bipartisan investigation by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that I chair, China has worked to exploit our U.S. research systems for their own gain. Our report reveals how the American taxpayer has, in effect, unwittingly footed the bill for research that has gone to China to advance national security and economic interests over the past two decades while our own federal agencies have done little to stop it.
Our investigation found that the Chinese government has used more than 200 so-called “talent programs,” most notably their ‘Thousand Talents Plan” to recruit American scientists and researchers to strategically acquire intellectual property from both America’s public and private sectors, including advances in artificial intelligence and 5G technology.
Since 2008, China has used its Thousand Talents Plan with large salaries and “shadow labs” to recruit more than 7,000 researchers from institutions in the U.S. and elsewhere. In exchange, these researchers sign legally binding contracts that can require them to hide their participation in the program from their research institution. This runs counter to U.S. regulations requiring federal grant recipients to disclose any funding they receive from non-U.S. sources. What’s worse, the contracts sometimes require the researchers to acquire research from their government-funded labs and transfer it to China. In one case we found, a Thousand Talents Plan member used research created at a U.S. lab to file a patent under the name of a Chinese company, effectively stealing the U.S. government-funded research and claiming it for China.
These talent recruitment programs are a win-win for China. First, U.S. taxpayers are funding this research, not China. Second, China uses that research it would not otherwise have to advance its own economic and military interest. The federal government has been aware of this problem for years, but has done nothing to correct it.
Despite China publicly announcing the Thousand Talents Plan in 2008, it was not until last year that FBI headquarters took control of the response to the threat posed by the program. In response to our report, the FBI admitted that they wished that they had “taken more rapid and comprehensive action in the past” to address these talent programs.
Likewise, the State Department, which issues visas to foreign researchers who can be Thousand Talents members, rarely denies visas to those it thinks may steal our research.
Meanwhile, despite spending more than $150 billion of taxpayer money per year funding research and development, our federal grant-making agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, and the National Science Foundation, don’t coordinate how they award, track, and monitor those funds. That leaves our research dollars vulnerable.
U.S. universities and research institutions must also take some responsibility for this problem. If universities can vet employees for scientific rigor or allegations of plagiarism, they can also vet for financial conflicts of interests and foreign sources of funding. These are complicated risks that the U.S. research community and the federal government must better understand.
I am pleased to see that the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy has been a leader in working with federal agencies and U.S. research institutions to help them better respond to these threats. I plan to work with the White House, national research agencies, universities, and the State Department on legislative solutions to protect our research. I look forward to working with my colleagues in Congress to stop China’s exploitation of our taxpayer-supported research.
Rob Portman is a United States senator from Ohio.