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MD Anderson Cancer Center, the world’s leading cancer research center, has recently fired three scientists over espionage fears after being alerted by the National Institutes of Health (NiH) to irregularities involving grant recipients.
NiH, the largest public funder of biomedical research in the United States, had been instructed by federal officials to investigate certain professors who were believed to be in violation of granting agency policies.
NiH, assisted by the FBI, discovered potential conflicts of interest and unreported foreign income by five members of MD Anderson staff. NiH sent emails to MD Anderson in 2018 and demanded a response within 30 days.
The failure to take action could potentially result in NiH withholding essential funding. MD Anderson received $148 million in NiH grants in 2018.
In response to the accusations, MD Anderson conducted an investigation and initiated termination procedures for three professors, two of whom resigned from their posts before proceedings started. The fourth professor was investigated but termination was not deemed to be warranted. The investigation into the fifth professor is ongoing. Three of the professors concerned are ethnically Chinese and all are of Asian origin.
The firings were in relation to possible diversion of intellectual property, failure to disclose substantial resources from other institutions, and the sharing of confidential information on grant applications.
“We have an obligation to do all we can to protect our intellectual property and all state and federal resources entrusted to us,” said MD Anderson President Peter Pisters, MD. “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 Houston Chronicle, which reported on the terminations, NiH has sent similar emails to dozens of other organizations voicing concerns about certain individuals who may have been recruited by foreign governments to steal proprietary research information. It is likely that these three actions will be the first of many over the coming weeks.
Concern has been growing recently about scientific research conducted in the United States being stolen by China and other foreign governments. The information is used to run ‘shadow laboratories’ overseas to benefit those countries.
The FBI has reported that up to $600 billion is being lost each year to intellectual property theft. FBI Director Christopher Wray said China is the biggest threat and is engaging in espionage in all 50 states across multiple industries.