MD Anderson Cancer Center has dismissed three scientists who have been associated with espionage conducted by the Chinese government. Two other scientists are also under scrutiny, the Houston Chronicle reported over the weekend.
According to the Chronicle, the scientists were connected to Chinese government efforts to steal scientific research being conducted at the vaunted cancer center. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) first notified the cancer center about U.S. government concerns regarding the potential theft of intellectual property for use by foreign governments. The Chronicle said the NIH told MD Anderson about conflicts of interest related to unreported foreign income from the five employees, three of which are ethnically Chinese. The NIH ‘s information was developed with assistance from the FBI, the Chronicle said.
On Friday, MD Anderson issued a statement raising concern over the impact of foreign influence and threats to intellectual property. MD Anderson said the NIH raised concerns regarding the security of intellectual property and the integrity of the peer review process for biomedical research. The cancer center said three areas of concern that were specifically pointed to by the NIH were diversion of intellectual property, sharing of confidential information on grant applications and failure by some researchers to disclose substantial resources from outside organizations, including foreign entities. The failure to disclose additional payments from outside organizations threatens to distort decisions about appropriate use of NIH funds, the cancer center said. MD Anderson stressed that no patient information has been accessed or shared by the threats of industrial espionage.
“MD Anderson remains committed to the highest levels of scientific integrity, public accountability and social responsibility in the conduct of science,” Peter Pisters, president of MD Anderson Cancer Center said in a statement. “We do so with an unending focus on ethics, our core value of Integrity and a shared commitment to maintain the extraordinary levels of trust the public has placed in us.”
Pisters said the cancer center is focused on protecting the institution, its people and its resources. Steps have been taken to safeguard the institution, including the development of a cutting-edge approach to Enterprise Risk Management. Efforts to increase awareness and education regarding enhancement of data security and management of conflict of interest have been prioritized and strengthened throughout the institution, he said.
“We have an obligation to do all we can to protect our intellectual property and all state and federal resources entrusted to us,” Pisters said. “We must be vigilant in protecting the outstanding work of our faculty and ensuring our continued ability to conduct world-class research in our pursuit to end cancer.”
According to the Chronicle, MD Anderson initiated the termination process for the three employees. Two of them resigned ahead of the proceedings, while one is beginning due process requirements. After an investigation, it was determined that termination was not warranted for one of the researchers and the other is currently being investigated, the Chronicle reported.
Citing a 2017 report issued by the FBI, the Associated Press noted that that intellectual-property theft by China costs the U.S. as much as $600 billion annually. Last year, two Chinese scientists pled guilty to stealing intellectual property from GlaxoSmithKline. Those trade secrets were going to be part of the foundation for setting up a company in China called Renopharma.