A Texas cancer treatment center routinely ranked among America's best ousted three of five scientists suspected by federal authorities of working with China to steal research.
The three, in internal documents the MD Anderson Cancer Center provided to the Houston Chronicle, were identified as ethnically Chinese. Two of them resigned ahead of termination proceedings and the third is now challenging the dismissal. Officials determined termination was not warranted for one and the last is still under investigation.
The documents, according to the New York Times, allege the National Institutes of Health complained to the facility last year about one of the scientists sending a grant application to a counterpart in China, while it is suspected others held undisclosed positions at medical institutions in Beijing.
“A small but significant number of individuals are working with government sponsorship to exfiltrate intellectual property that has been created with the support of U.S. taxpayers, private donors and industry collaborators,” the center’s president, Dr. Peter Pisters, told the newspaper after news of the ousters emerged.
“At risk is America’s internationally acclaimed system of funding biomedical research, which is based on the principles of trust, integrity and merit,” he added.
Pisters says the NIH, in communications with MD Anderson Cancer Center last year, detailed conflicts of interest and unreported foreign income by the five faculty members, and gave it 30 days to respond.
"As stewards of taxpayer dollars invested in biomedical research, we have an obligation to follow up," Pisters said. MD Anderson received $148 million in NIH grants last year.
It's not clear if any of the five potentially face federal charges or deportation. An FBI spokeswoman in Houston, Christina Garza, told the Associated Press on Saturday the agency "does not confirm or deny the existence of any investigation."
Media reports have not revealed and the facility did not disclose any evidence of intellectual property theft.
But the dismissals come amid heightened concern in Washington, D.C., that foreign governments, including China, have been using students and visiting scholars to pilfer intellectual property from confidential grant applications.
At a gathering in Houston last summer, FBI officials warned Texas academic and medical institutions of the threat, particularly from insiders, and called on them to notify the agency of any suspicious behavior.
A 2017 FBI report found intellectual-property theft by China costs the U.S. as much as $600 billion annually. FBI Director Christopher Wray has called China "the broadest, most significant" threat to the nation.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.