On Senate Floor, Portman Urges Passage of Safeguarding American Innovation Act to Protect COVID-19 Research

July 29, 2020 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, DC – Today on the Senate floor, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) spoke on the need for the Senate to pass his bipartisan Safeguarding American Innovation Act to help stop foreign governments from stealing American taxpayer-funded research and intellectual property developed at U.S. colleges and universities.  

Recently, both FBI Director Wray and Attorney General Barr have spoken about the threat to American taxpayer-funded research and intellectual property from foreign governments, particularly China, which would be addressed by this legislation. In fact, FBI Director Wray announced that the FBI is opening a new China-related investigation every 10 hours with around 2,500 open counterintelligence investigations across the country.   

In addition, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has reported that 54 scientists have resigned or been fired as a result of a NIH investigation into American taxpayer-funded grant recipients’ failure to disclose financial ties to foreign governments, particularly China. In fact, according to the NIH investigation, more than 90 percent of the scientists had undisclosed ties to China. 

There are already troubling reports that China, and other global competitors, may be trying to steal COVID-19-related research. 

The Safeguarding American Innovation Act, which passed the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last week, will help prevent this from happening. For that reason, it was recently announced that this legislation has been included in Senate Republicans’ HEALS coronavirus rescue package. 

A transcript of the speech can be found below and a video can be found here. 

“Another aspect of the COVID-19 legislation is a part of the bill that focuses on how do we deal with bringing back our personal protective gear production from overseas, particularly from China, and how to deal with the concern we have that some of the work we're doing on therapies and cures -- and by the way, there's substantial more resources, billions of dollars that go into that in this bill -- that other countries aren't taking this research. So right now in labs all around America, some of the best and brightest minds are at work on therapies, cures, and vaccines for COVID-19. It's changed all our lives in the past few months and we stand to benefit from these medical breakthroughs. We want them to happen.  

“So again Congress has already appropriated billions of dollars and in the McConnell proposal, there is billions more for this purpose. That's appropriate. But as we work to find a cure, there are troubling reports emerging that China in particular is actively trying to take this research for themselves. As the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency warned in May, there has been a pattern of ‘targeting and compromise of U.S. organizations conducting COVID-19-related research by China-affiliated cyber-actors and nontraditional actors.’ FBI Director Wray was even more pointed about this threat earlier this month stating on July 7 that ‘At this very moment,’ he said, ‘China is working to compromise American health care organizations, pharmaceutical companies, and academic institutions conducting essential COVID-19 research.’ 

“Just last week the Justice Department filed charges against a Chinese researcher who failed to disclose her ties to the People's Liberation Army while conducting medical research at Stanford University. While she was not accused of stealing the research in this case, this kind of arrangement where scholars are essentially agents of the Chinese government to gain access to our cutting edge labs around the country to find research to sneak back into China is all too common. That China would attempt to steal for their own benefit is, unfortunately, not surprising. As we have all seen over the past few months China's failure to live up to its international commitments on critical issues like transparency and human rights have led to some of the issues we've had, particularly with regard to the lack of transparency on the unchecked spread of the coronavirus from Wuhan.  

“Frankly, relations with China are not good right now in part because of that. And unfortunately, our problems with China extend to our labs and our universities. As Chair of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, I led a bipartisan investigation last year into this issue. Over the course of a year we learned how the Chinese Communist Party has used so-called talent recruitment programs, notably its Thousand Talents Plan, to systematically target the most promising U.S.-based research and researchers and pay them to take their American taxpayer-funded research back to Chinese universities. While stealing this research is bad enough, what's worse is it's not taken for academic purposes. Instead according to a State Department witness at our hearing last November, ‘The Chinese Communist Party has declared the Chinese university system to be on the front line of military-civilian fusion efforts for technology acquisition.’ This means there's a clear link between the research being taken from American labs and the latest advancement in China's military and its economy.  

“There's more recent attention to this topic of research theft, which is a good thing. We need to talk about it. We need to expose it. We need to deal with it. Recently both FBI Director Wray and Attorney General Barr have spoken about this threat. In fact, Director Wray announced that the FBI Is opening a new China-related investigation on this topic every ten hours. A new investigation every ten hours, with around 2,500 counterintelligence investigations now going on around the country.  

“We've seen this type of research theft in my own home state of Ohio, unfortunately. Just a couple of months ago, a National Institutes of Health-funded researcher affiliated with both the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western University was accused of hiding that he had received more than $3 million from the Chinese government to effectively take and replicate his Cleveland Clinic research at lab in China. He's actually accused of taking biological samples from Cleveland, Ohio, to Wuhan, China, and this was taxpayer-paid research by the NIH. He's not alone. The NIH has recently reported that 54 scientists and researchers have either resigned or been fired as a result of an NIH investigation into American taxpayer-funded grant recipients for their failure to disclose financial ties to foreign governments, particularly China. In fact, according to the NIH investigation, more than 90 percent of the scientists had undisclosed ties to China. Unfortunately, as it stands, our law enforcement agencies can't go directly after these researchers for hiding their foreign conflict of interest, for not telling the truth while taking taxpayer money.  

“As important as it is that we speak out against these improper actions by China around the world, it's also critical that we take steps to clean up our own house right here in the United States, make America more resilient against China. One way we can do that is by stopping research developed in our labs from going to benefit China’s military and economy at our expense. I'm pleased to say we have an opportunity to change that right now because this legislation is included in the COVID-19 legislation, and in doing so, take a stand in a bipartisan manner in defense of our values of research, transparency, collaboration, fairness, and national security.  

“It's called the Safeguarding American Innovation Act, our legislation, and I introduced it along with Senator Tom Carper and a group of bipartisan senators to ensure that individuals are held accountable for failing to disclose their foreign ties on federal grant applications. It will also reform the State Department’s vetting process for issuing visas to foreign researchers. It will require more safeguards on sensitive research from our research institutions and our universities and will help us better track who is working on taxpayer-funded research.  

“This bill is ready to pass the Senate. The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee voted to approve it last week with bipartisan and unanimous consent. And I’m pleased to say that, again, Leader McConnell has chosen to include this legislation in his Phase 5 proposal, the CARES 2.0 package because it will help protect taxpayer-funded COVID-19 research and serve as a safeguard for the $150 billion that Americans give to scientists to conduct research every year -- that's the taxpayer funding that goes into our research institutions.  

“In that regard, including the Safeguarding American Innovation Act in this CARES 2.0 bill can and should be viewed as a fiscally responsible measure. As we take a stance against behavior that China has gotten away with for way too long, let's do all we can to put American institutions on a solid footing as well. It's time to put an end to the Chinese Communist Party's theft to our taxpayer-funded research, including COVID-19 research. I hope my colleagues will join me in supporting the Safeguarding American Innovation Act.”