Is US Science Vulnerable To Espionage?

16:36 minutes

The FBI, National Institutes of Health (NIH), and other agencies who oversee federal research grants are currently asking if the open culture of science in the U.S. is inviting other countries to steal it.

The FBI has been warning since 2016 that researchers could be potentially sending confidential research, and even biological samples, to other countries. On Monday, a report in the New York Times outlined the scale of ongoing investigations: nearly 200 cases of potential intellectual property theft at 71 different institutions. 

New York Times health and science reporter Gina Kolata, who broke the story, explains the investigations, and why China is featuring so prominently.

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Segment Guests

Gina Kolata

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Science says many have said on this show over the years is driven by collaboration and cooperation. Researchers review each other’s proposals for new projects, get close-up views of confidential data before new results are published.

But the FBI has been warning that this culture of openness is leaving USO research open to an unexpected consequence– theft and espionage. And new reporting from the New York Times this week revealed that dozens of research institutions are investigating individual scientists for potentially offering confidential intellectual property to China. Here to explain and the reporter who broke that story, Gina Kolata, medical reporter for the New York Times. Always happy to talk to you, Gina.

GINA KOLATA: It’s great to talk to you, Ira. We go back a long time at the beginning of our careers. Don’t even mention it, right?

IRA FLATOW: Yes. Well, unpack this story for us. Why are institutes so concerned about potential spying right now?

GINA KOLATA: Well, I think they haven’t really even thought about this as an issue. As the administrator at the NIH said, it took them a while to even sort of grasp the fact that this was actually happening. And what happened was the FBI came to them in 2016 and said– came to the NIH– and said, well, we want to know how science works. How does peer review work? What are the rules? What are the regulations? How does this all happen?

And apparently, they had somehow seen things that they thought might be disturbing. What they wanted to know, what is required of scientists, and how, if at all, are things shared. So this went on for a little while, and then the FBI and the NIH started identifying situations where it looked like trans– there were things. There were transgressions. And from there, they tried to say who are the scientists. So a lot of people say this is like they’re attacking Chinese scientists. They said, no, we look for something that looks fishy. And then we look for the scientists.

So the fact that they are Chinese seems to fit into a pattern in a way, but most ethnic Chinese in this country, like the vast, vast, vast majority have nothing to do with this. This is a relatively very few people, considering how many are out there. But what they’re doing, when you look at what they’ve been passing along, it’s hard to say, oh, it was no big deal. It’s just an accident. It kind of wasn’t.

IRA FLATOW: For some of those cases that they had been investigating. Yeah.

GINA KOLATA: Yeah, I mean, the things that they were–

IRA FLATOW: Give me an idea. Give me an example.

GINA KOLATA: OK. Well, I always say, why do people keep putting things in emails, Ira? I mean, honestly, how many times have emails been just so damning for people? But for example, they had one person who had a confidential research proposal, and he or she was reviewing. And it is a felony to reveal what you see. So this person sent it off to a colleague in China, saying, here are the bones and meat of what you want, spelled meat, M-E-A-T. And he didn’t spell it right, but that’s what he was saying.

Then we have other ones where somebody said, I should be able to bring the whole set of primers to you if I can figure out how to get a dozen tubes of frozen DNA onto an airplane. The primers are used as a diagnostic test. This was not his to take. It belonged to the university that was supporting them and doing the research. And the taxpayers paid for the research.

So what would seem to be happening is that some of these people were getting grants from the Chinese government, and they were supposed to report outside sources of income. They were not reporting this. And as part of this grant, they were required to provide information to the government. There have been companies set up in China. People have done research. It’s been taken to China, and people there have gotten patents on it.

So I was telling your researcher who called me earlier. I said it’s like– it’s not a great analogy, but it’s like suppose I wrote a book and I gave it to my editor at a publisher, my publisher. And before they could even copyright it or anything, my publisher had some friend at some other organization or whatever, gave them the book and somebody else published it and copyrighted it. You feel like, what can you do? Now it’s not mine anymore. These are data that don’t belong– these are data, reagents, medical tests that do not belong to the people who have been stealing them. They belong to the institutions, the US taxpayers, and they’re gone.

IRA FLATOW: And who alerted the FBI that this was happening?

GINA KOLATA: The FBI will never talk about their investigations. I do know that one of the early things that happened– and I don’t know if was the first. People said it was the first. Other people said no, it’s an early thing– was there was a scientist who was caught in an airport with a suitcase full of hard drives full of data that he was trying to sneak off to China. I don’t know how they knew that was in the suitcase. But that was kind of an alarming thing.

Now I also understand why Chinese scientists in the US worried that they’re going to be targeted. Because there have been cases where people have been erroneously accused. And once you’re accused, even if it’s wrong, your life can be ruined. I mean just ruined. So I understand that. But on the other hand, I also understand the point of view of the universities and the NIH who say, wait a minute. This does not belong to the people who are stealing it. And once it’s gone, it’s gone.

I mean, it’s like your best idea. You have this great idea for a story. You go tell your editor. Your editor tells his friend. It’s published by the New York Times, Ira. I mean, who knows? And then you say, wait a minute, that was my story. Well, too late. It’s gone now.

IRA FLATOW: Well, but China has a long history of incentivizing intellectual property theft, right?


IRA FLATOW: So this should not be a surprise, should it?

GINA KOLATA: Well, the problem is that this is a system of biomedical research that has always prided itself on trust and honesty and sharing. And that doesn’t mean that trust hasn’t been breached. I mean, I can think of examples in the US where people have taken– nothing to do with China, just within the US– where people have taken somebody else’s ideas that they saw in a grant proposal, even though it’s a felony to do this, and gone ahead and tried to develop them themselves.

So it’s not like it never happens. But the system has to– it’s hard to have a system like ours and put the kind of controls in place that would prevent this. I mean, there are ideas for how to do it, and they make a lot of sense. But they’re going to change the system.

IRA FLATOW: Hm. So were some of the scientists trying to cover up what they were doing, saying, oh, I’m just taking a vacation, and bring over material with them.

GINA KOLATA: Well, they were saying things like, this is totally unfair. I didn’t do anything, or I didn’t know that I wasn’t allowed to do this. Or they have lawyers who say they’re totally innocent. Some of them who were under suspicion just went off to China and established labs there. So they’re gone. But others have lawyers who say, wait a minute, they didn’t do anything wrong.

And maybe they didn’t. See, that’s the other thing. People say, well, why don’t we have all the names? And we do have due process in this country. And it takes a long time to do an investigation and get an indictment and get a conviction. And I understand why the universities and the FBI are being very careful about releasing these people’s names. Some people identified themselves. They went off to China. They identified themselves and said, I didn’t do anything. I’m being accused. But those who are still under investigation– there’s quite a few of them– I understand why their names and all the details about them were not released.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let’s go to the phones, 844-724-8255. Tom in Castro Valley, California. Hi, welcome, Tom.

TOM: Yes, hi. I just wanted to ask, on individual NPR programs and in the news, different things keep popping up about China stealing this, China counterfeiting that, China doing that. And there’s stuff happening out here in California in Silicon Valley and universities that have research grants with our large companies. Autonomous vehicles is another area, where when we look at these events one on one, but then you spread it over many, many, many different things, one starts to wonder about the entire relationship with China and whether a single trade agreement is going to resolve any of this. What are the answers to– on a broader– to apply what your guest is saying is happening in one area to broader intellectual property theft across companies and universities nationwide?

GINA KOLATA: That’s a really good point. And I was told that, as you pointed out, it’s not just the biomedical field. I’m a medical reporter, so I went after the medical. I looked into the medical field. But the National Science Foundation, the Office of Science and Technology, everybody is concerned about this. And everybody’s asking, what are we supposed to do? I don’t think that anybody– people have, like I said, they have recommendations. They have advice. But I don’t think we have a policy in place that would stop any of this yet.

IRA FLATOW: So do you think the discussion about this is going to stifle, then, the intellectual discourse that scientists have with each other?

GINA KOLATA: Are you asking me?


GINA KOLATA: Or your guest. Well, actually, some of the ideas are not– I can’t imagine them stifling things, but they would prevent some of the thefts. For example, if you were reviewing a grant proposal, you can only do it if you’re using a secure computer, and you are not allowed to copy anything you see, print anything you see. You sit in a room and you read it. Now you might remember it, you might take notes. But it’s going to be a little bit harder to hand it off after that.

At MD Anderson, they got rid of things like thumb drives and stuff so you can’t so easily download stuff and pass it on. But it’s hard because science is a collaborative enterprise. I can’t imagine that they would put controls in place that would prevent researchers from talking to each other, collaborating with each other, cooperating with each other, sharing reagents when everybody understands that that’s what’s going on.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And there–

GINA KOLATA: And that even includes people in China. I mean, just because you’re in China doesn’t mean you’re trying to steal something for the government.

IRA FLATOW: And there are how many cases? Hundreds of cases of potential bad behavior?

GINA KOLATA: That are being investigated. See, that doesn’t mean it’s going to go farther. Maybe they’ll find out it was a mistake.

IRA FLATOW: And it might–

GINA KOLATA: So I want to be fair to the people who are being investigated.

IRA FLATOW: And to be fair, it may not only be the Chinese who are–

GINA KOLATA: Well, they told me– I said, well, what other countries? And they said basically, it just keeps coming back to China. We haven’t seen it with other countries so far.

IRA FLATOW: So far. Let’s go to the phones to Alex in New York. Hi, Alex.


IRA FLATOW: Go ahead.

ALEX: Yeah, so I actually wanted to share a quick story. My aunt was working for Brown University back in the ’90s. And her very close co-worker was involved in something like this. They had worked together for many, many years. And the co-worker’s husband was also a retired scientist. And he got involved in something similar to this, where he was leaking a lot of this research back to folks that he was have contacts with. And his wife, my aunt, the co-worker, she got in a lot of trouble. This was back in the ’90s. So this has been going on for a while. And unfortunately, it’s basically human nature that we are dealing with. It’s happening in all verticals, not just research.

IRA FLATOW: OK. All right. So where do we go with this Gina? Are we going to see prosecution, indictments coming down the line?

GINA KOLATA: Well, probably, but they haven’t– there have been a few that haven’t involved NIH funded research, but they have involved people who are doing biomedical research and were getting funds in other ways. But the NIH things are still winding their way through, because you go from a university finding something that concerns them. They send it to the NIH, the NIH investigates. They send it to the Office of Inspector General. The Office of Inspector General investigates. If they think a crime was committed, they send it to the FBI. Then the FBI looks at it, and then it can go to a grand jury. I mean, it does take a while. And it hasn’t been that much time yet, and not that much time yet has passed.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Now are we fearful– you mentioned this a little bit in passing that they’re hoping that it doesn’t turn into a racial issue for all research where it might be Chinese, for example.

GINA KOLATA: Well, I think that what I heard is a lot of people who are of Chinese ethnicity worry about that. I do trust– only because I’ve known them probably as long as I’ve known you, Ira, some of the people at the NIH who say, look, we don’t know the ethnicity of the person we’re investigating. We see what it looks like a transgression, and then we find the person. And if you trust them, then you have– and I do– then you’d have to say, well, it’s not that they’re going after Chinese. There’s so many Chinese scientists anyway. If you started going after them and looking at everything they do, you could never, never go– you couldn’t get anywhere.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking with Gina Kolata, medical reporter for the New York Times about espionage in universities and intellectual property. Do you think universities are going to be cracking down and giving more secrecy to what they’re doing or trying to keep it private?

GINA KOLATA: I think what they’re going to be doing– and once again, nobody– I think universities don’t want to talk too openly about this because they’re so afraid of being accused of racial profiling. But I think what they’re doing, what they might be doing is some of the things that MD Anderson, at least, admits that they’re doing. And some of the things that they’re doing is, like I said, they got rid of– when you travel, you can’t just take your normal laptop. They don’t have any external hard drives. They got rid of their thumb drives.

They have so much security. They showed me some redacted emails, and boy, were they heavily redacted. And it was in a system called Box. They gave me a password to look at these things, and of course, I didn’t know the names of anybody. And boy, there was a lot of black on those pages. But anyway, in order to get into Box, I got to have a password and get in and look at this stuff. I couldn’t copy it. I couldn’t print it or anything. And then my password expired. So I went and looked at it again. I had to say wait a minute, I can’t get back into Box. I had to get another password. It doesn’t even last long. It was so secure, you feel like it would be very hard to export anything unless you just sat there, manually writing down everything you saw.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Well, we’re very happy that you could take time to be with us today and to always continue your great work as a medical reporter, always following your stuff. Thank you, Gina.

GINA KOLATA: Well, thank you, Ira. It’s always good to talk to you. Thanks for having me on the show.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

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