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Chinese infiltration of US labs caught science agencies off guard

China has diverted US government funds to bolster its military and economic aims, a US Senate panel says.

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The Department of Energy headquarters in Washington DC, 2016

The US Department of Energy has been targeted by researchers affiliated with China’s Thousand Talents Plan. Credit: Randy Duchaine/Alamy

US science agencies’ slow response to the threat posed by China’s talent-recruitment programmes has allowed China to divert US government funds and private-sector technology to further its military and economic goals, a US Senate panel has found.

Its report, which lawmakers discussed at a hearing on 19 November, describes new details of China’s efforts to infiltrate US research institutions — including contract provisions requiring participating scientists to work on behalf of China.

The analysis focused on China’s Thousand Talents Plan, the most prestigious of more than 200 programmes that are designed to recruit leading academics and promote domestic research.

Despite the fact that many of these programmes were hiding in plain sight, federal science agencies were caught off guard and must now coordinate efforts to protect the US research enterprise, lawmakers said.

“We have to be nimble,” said Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio and chair of the Senate homeland security and governmental Aaffairs panel's investigations subcommittee. “We’ve got to be prepared for whatever form this threat takes going forward.”

In particular, he pointed to provisions in sample Thousand Talent contracts requiring participating scientists to abide by Chinese law, keep the contract secret, recruit postdocs and sign over any intellectual-property rights to the sponsoring Chinese institution.

The contracts provide incentives for scientists to set up ‘shadow labs’ in China that mirror US taxpayer-funded research at their home institutions. Michael Lauer, a deputy director at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), told lawmakers that those laboratories allow China to see what is happening in the United States before the rest of the world does. Lauer said that, when the NIH informed US research institutions about the existence of these shadow labs as part of a broader investigation into foreign influence, confidentiality rules and conflicts of interest, the news often came as a surprise.

“Many of the American institutions had no idea that their own faculty had a laboratory in China,” Lauer said. “They became aware of this only by virtue of the fact that the government came asking.”

The problem is not limited to the NIH, says the report, which includes examples from the US National Science Foundation and the departments of commerce, energy and state.

In one case, a postdoctoral researcher at an energy-department lab who was also part of China’s Thousand Talents Plan removed 30,000 electronic files from the US lab before returning to China, the report says. The unclassified information included presentations, technical papers, research and charts.

By delving into the problematic requirements in actual talent-programme contracts, the Senate report provides a vivid depiction of an issue that many universities have been struggling to address for more than a year, says Tobin Smith, vice-president for policy at the Association of American Universities in Washington DC.

“This will help us as we try to make faculty aware of why they ought to be careful in entering into any of these talent programs,” Smith says.

Nature 575, 578 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03584-3

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