The Leaky Research Funding Pipeline in the United States Is it possible that nearly half of all the research grants provided by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to research organizations have been compromised by Foreign Influence activities?

As noted in headlines in January 2020, another researcher in the United States was arrested for disclosure concerns related to participation in a Global Talents Recruitment Program. The case involving Charles Lieber, the chair of Harvard University’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, underscores the ease of which Foreign Influence activities, in this case, a China-based Talents recruitment program, can compromise U.S. researchers and defeat compliance and security controls designed to protect research assets. The fact pattern of the top researcher’s behaviors aligns with similar behaviors noted in other cases where researchers have been compromised by Foreign Influence activities (e.g., Talents recruitment program participation), leading to the potential misuse, loss, theft, and misappropriation of research-driven Intellectual Property (IP).

There has been an unfortunate string of similar arrests involving researchers in the United States who have undisclosed foreign research collaborations and/or undisclosed foreign sources of research funding (e.g., cases involving Song Guo Zheng, Qing Wang, etc.), leading to compliance policy violations and sometimes even federal law violations.

In a June 2020 Science magazine article, the NIH shared that “…of the 189 scientists flagged in its letters to institutions, 133 of them (70%) failed to disclose a grant from a foreign entity, and 102 failed to disclose their participation in a foreign talent recruitment program, such as China’s Thousand Talents Program.” Extrapolating those percentages to the total number of NIH grant recipients who might also have similar conflicts of interests and commitments, it is easy to see how the impact of Foreign Influence activities against U.S. research programs has had a sobering effect on all the stakeholders involved.

The strategic importance of university, corporate, military, and government research programs in the defense and military modernization, biopharmaceutical, biotechnology, oil/gas/nuclear energy, telecommunications, advanced computing, and other cutting-edge research sectors, make them attractive targets for both outsider and insider threat actors. Certainly, one of the most heavily-targeted research sectors is the biomedical industry in the United States. There is a growing trend of incidents involving the misuse, loss, theft, and misappropriation of IP, including trade secrets, unpublished research findings, and other research-derived information assets related to scientific advancements in disease therapies and related healthcare applications. IP theft and misappropriation remains a significant risk to every research organization, especially advanced R&D programs focused on emerging critical infrastructure solutions and defense applications.

Foreign governments, including China, Russia, and Iran, have leveraged their intelligence and security services to design traditional and non-traditional operational approaches to coerce, corrupt, and otherwise comprise trusted employees, contractors, and supply chain partners working for universities, corporations, and government agencies working in critical infrastructure functions. Foreign Influence activities have been effective in compromising the integrity of security and compliance controls designed to mitigate traditional insider risks. Foreign Influence activities, including the Global Talents Recruitment Programs, are financially and operationally supported by a foreign (that is, non-U.S.) government entity and are designed to target research data, intellectual property, and other types of proprietary information for loss, theft, and/or misappropriation.

Trusted internal researchers and other research program professionals that are compromised by Foreign Influence threats provide unauthorized access to research data assets and become either witting or unwitting assets of a foreign government entity. The exploitation leads to the misuse, loss, theft, and misappropriation of the research assets owned by the researcher’s employer and impacting other stakeholders such as the government agency funding the research.

Root cause analysis of these incidents suggests that some researchers simply were unaware of the risks and consequences of their decisions to participate in Foreign Influence activities, such as the Global Talents Recruitment Programs. Training and awareness programs that focus on connecting individual contributor behaviors to the risks and consequences of policy violations can reduce the likelihood and impact of Foreign Influence activities against the research organization and its assets.

If you are a researcher or involved in a research project compliance and oversight, it is important to educate yourself on Foreign Influence activities and how to avoid the negative consequences that can result from undisclosed or under-disclosed research collaborations and funding sources.