Scholars or Spies?
By Reps. Lamar Smith and Clay Higgins
At a recent hearing of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, on which we both serve, we heard disturbing news about foreign countries’ efforts to steal American technological secrets and scientific discoveries. Our country's workers and taxpayers pay the price when unfriendly nations gain competitive advantage by stealing our technology and innovations.
In March, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted nine Iranian hackers for breaking into American universities’ computer systems and stealing scientific information and intellectual property worth nearly $3.5 billion, including research paid for by taxpayers. According to the department officials, this brazen theft was part of a larger Iranian plot to hack into the computers of nearly 4,000 professors at 144 U.S. research universities.
China also has aggressively targeted research at U.S. academic institutions. An essential part of China’s plan to achieve global domination in vital areas of science and technology is theft: stealing technological secrets from American companies, hacking into sensitive computer systems and supporting their spies at our research universities.
In one noteworthy case, a former faculty member at New York University was employed by a pioneering MRI technology research project funded by the National Institutes of Health. This person concealed his affiliations with a Chinese-sponsored research institute. Then he colluded with a Chinese medical imaging company to patent and license the new MRI technology that was developed with NIH funds to the company for millions of dollars.
China also finances friendly-sounding organizations, like the China-United States Exchange Foundation. The foundation, however, is a registered agent of the Chinese government. Credit to the University of Texas at Austin, which recently rejected a big check from them. But other major U.S. institutions have taken the money, allowed the foundation to set up on their campuses and turned a blind eye to its efforts to abet scientific espionage.
The intelligence community has warned for years that foreign agents target American students and educators in priority areas of science. Unfriendly foreign nations’ “shopping lists” -- U.S. breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, medical science and national security -- and their criminal methods and subversive tactics are well-known. We should counter these threats.
Increased vigilance at our universities is our crucial first line of defense. Without stifling academic freedom, academic institutions must take steps to guard against thefts of sensitive information. Unfortunately, many institutional leaders have been reluctant to acknowledge real-world threats and unwilling to take needed actions to protect researchers’ work, universities’ scientific assets and taxpayers’ dollars.
Universities that receive billions of federal research dollars are legally responsible for protecting research assets: data, test results and intellectual property. Federal science agencies like the National Science Foundation, which awards $6 billion for research each year, have authority -- in fact, the duty -- to deny additional funding to universities and researchers that fail to take appropriate actions.
Research institutions that receive public funds should be required to comply with sensible security standards. Federal cybersecurity recommendations should be mandatory. University researchers and administration should be trained to recognize efforts to steal sensitive information. There must be more careful screening of those who apply to study in the United States.
Assistance from federal law enforcement is crucial, too. We were surprised to learn recently that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is disbanding the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board that allowed university leaders to consult directly with law enforcement officials. We subsequently joined other members of the House Science Committee in sending a letter to FBI director Christopher Wray asking why the FBI decided to suspend this advisory board.
Over the next few months, we will work with the university community, science agencies and federal law enforcement on solutions to keep the United States at the forefront of innovation and protect American funds and ingenuity.