Rob Portman on Senate Floor

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) addresses the Senate.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This Op/Ed from U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) first appeared on March 6 at RealClearPolitics.

The United States is home to the best universities and research institutes in the world. The work being done in labs and classrooms across the country facilitates life-saving medical advances, bolsters our national security and profoundly changes the way we live. Our research enterprise has played a central role in making the United States the most advanced, innovative and prosperous nation in the world.

Yet, it has now become clear that our grant-making agencies and law enforcement authorities have allowed our direct competitors, particularly China, to effectively leapfrog America by stealing this research for their own gain. There is no federal requirement for universities and research institutions that sponsor foreign researchers to put policies in place to safeguard federally funded research and sensitive technologies from being stolen. And we’re already seeing the consequences.

Most recently, Charles Lieber, chair of the Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department at Harvard University, was accused of lying to U.S. authorities about his participation in the Chinese government-run “Thousand Talents Plan,” which can pay elite researchers from around the world hundreds of thousands of dollars to conduct research in Chinese laboratories.

As chair of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, I led an eight-month investigation into China’s systematic stealing of U.S. intellectual property through the Thousand Talents Plan, culminating late last year with the release of an eye-opening bipartisan report that shows that the case of Dr. Lieber is far from an isolated incident. 

The U.S. government spends more than $150 billion a year in taxpayer dollars on research and development grants. Shockingly, we learned that our federal grant-making agencies in Washington – including the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation – have done little to thwart China’s talent theft efforts. They don’t coordinate how they award, track and monitor the billions in taxpayer funds they disburse to universities and research institutes across the nation. Such transparency would help discourage Americans from participating in programs like the Thousand Talents Plan.

They have effectively left our research enterprise vulnerable to foreign exploitation, and China has stepped up to take advantage of the opportunity, using the stolen research to help modernize its military and fuel its economic rise over the past two decades. This is an affront to American taxpayers and a brazen failure to protect U.S. national security.

However, stopping China’s rampant theft of our cutting-edge research and intellectual property will require more comprehensive action, and I’m working on bipartisan legislation to do just that. We need to empower the U.S. government to conduct appropriate oversight on foreign researchers and their access to sensitive technologies, prosecute those who fail to disclose foreign funding and potential conflicts of interest on grant applications, and strengthen accountability measures for both grant money and foreign donations to U.S. research institutions and universities.

While we must continue to work with other countries on breakthrough research, we cannot stand idly by as the research funded by American taxpayers is stolen by our global competitors to give them a military and economic advantage.

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