MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas has forced out three senior researchers with ties to China. The move comes amid nationwide investigations by federal officials into whether researchers are pilfering intellectual property from US research institutions and running “shadow laboratories” abroad, according to a joint report by Science magazine and the Houston Chronicle.
The National Institutes of Health began sending letters to the elite cancer center last August regarding the conduct of five researchers there. The letters discussed “serious violations” of NIH policies, including leaking confidential NIH grant proposals under peer review to individuals in China, failing to disclose financial ties in China, and other conflicts of interest. MD Anderson moved to terminate three of those researchers, two of whom resigned during the termination process. The center cleared the fourth and is still investigation the fifth.
The move follows years of probing from the FBI, which first contacted MD Anderson back in 2015 with such concerns, according to MD Anderson President Dr. Peter Pisters. In December 2017, MD Anderson handed over hard drives containing employee emails to FBI investigators. That same year, a report by the US Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property used some rough calculations to estimate that IP theft by all parties cost the country upward of $225 billion, potentially as high as $600 billion, each year. The report called China the “world’s principal IP infringer.”
Last fall—just days before MD Anderson received the first letter—the NIH announced that it was getting involved in the issue. NIH Director Francis Collins sent a letter to academic institutions nationwide warning that “some foreign entities have mounted systematic programs to influence NIH researchers and peer reviewers,” which led to “unacceptable breaches of trust and confidentiality.” Collins told reporters last week that the FBI was sharing information with the NIH.
After receiving the NIH’s letters, MD Anderson’s compliance and ethics officer Max Weber conducted internal investigation on the researchers. That resulted in lengthy reports that confirmed the NIH’s concerns for three researchers, the ones ultimately ousted. Weber reported instances of these researchers sharing confidential grant proposals during peer review, accepting undisclosed payments from Chinese institutions, and, in one case, running a shadow lab in China.
MD Anderson isn’t the only institution dealing with this issue. The NIH sent similar letters to at least three other institutions, according to reporting by Science and the Houston Chronicle.
Meanwhile, some advocates expressed concern over what they considered racial profiling while other researchers worried that such efforts to protect intellectual property would actually backfire. “These are the top talents foreign countries have been trying to recruit unsuccessfully,” said Steven Pei, a University of Houston professor critical of the actions by MD Anderson. “We are now pushing them out of the Texas Medical Center, out of Houston, out of Texas, and out of the US. It seems we’re helping foreign countries to accomplish what they could not do by themselves. We are hurting the American competitiveness.”