Lawmakers Address Potential Bias in the Investigation of University Researchers

By Published On: March 3, 2020

Counterintelligence investigations targeting Chinese scientists triggered the opening of a new civil rights investigation by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. Letters from the subcommittee addressed to the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) requested documents and information about “targeting ethnically Chinese scientists as a part of a purported plan to protect U.S. biomedical research from foreign interference.”

Chairman of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Jamie Raskin, and Chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, Judy Chu, jointly requested that the FBI produce information about investigations since 2014 and  the NIH produce information since 2016 with a deadline for their responses by the end of this week. Issues related to civil rights, civil liberties and the equal protection of laws fall within subcommittee’s jurisdiction.  Rankin and Chu query whether many charged have been unfairly targeted due to “Chinese-sounding names” or “Chinese heritage.”

Of note, the representatives cite to alleged wrongful prosecutions brought under the Economic Espionage Act.  Yet, of late, scientists accused of misconduct related to NIH funding have not be charged with violations of the Economic Espionage Act (the Act) and instead many of these scientists have been arrested for violations under 18 U.S.C. §§ 1001, 1343, or 666 (false statements to the government, program fraud, and wire fraud).

In addition, the representatives also point to examples of three different scientists wrongfully accused of espionage in the letter to NIH Director, Francis Collins.  Not all investigations on campuses have involved instances of alleged theft.  It is true that the FBI’s most recent outreach to universities about the threat of economic espionage included a pamphlet that warned specifically about efforts by China to steal academic research.  However, many of the university-scientist prosecutions related to federal grants thus far allege failure to follow grant requirements to disclose conflicts and affiliations with China.  Private industry cases regarding theft of trade secrets have proliferated, while a different kind of case emerged from academia. Ultimately, lawmakers did not recognize that different charges tied to federal grant requirements have emerged on college campuses.

Is this a distinction without meaning in the context of fears about targeting Chinese scientists generally? Undoubtedly civil rights concerns may continue as additional allegations arise. Allegations of this nature can be interrelated, resulting in a charging document that happens to invoke non-trade theft related criminal provisions while the case could have evolved from an original complaint of economic espionage or trade theft under the Act.  In response, Raskin and Chu wrote, “while there are undoubtedly authentic and legitimate cases of espionage that should be investigated, these reports have created serious concern that innocent people are being swept up in this initiative.”  Further information about the civil rights investigation launched by the subcommittee can be found here.