MD Anderson Cancer Centre Fires Scientists Over Espionage Allegations

MD Anderson Cancer Centre has fired three scientists over allegations of espionage. 

The National Institutes of Health (NiH) contacted MD Anderson Cancer Centre, a world-leading cancer research centre, over concerns about a potential conflict of interests reports that five of their research scientists had been receiving a foreign income.

NiH discovered the unreported foreign incomes of five MD Anderson researchers with assistance from the FBI. NiH sent emails to MD Anderson in 2018 and demanded a response within 30 days. If MD Anderson did not respond, they were at risk of losing their funding. NiH is the largest public funder of biomedical research in the United States and gave $148 million to MD Anderson in 2018.

MD Anderson conducted an integral investigation and decided to terminate the contracts of three of the scientists. Two of these scientists resigned from their posts before disciplinary action could be taken. The third is challenging their dismissal. MD Anderson investigated the fourth scientist but decided against terminating the contract. A fifth scientist is still being investigated.

All of the scientists concerned are of Asian descent, resulting in allegations of racial profiling against the investigatory bodies.

The scientists were accused of the diversion of intellectual property, failure to disclose substantial resources from other institutions, and the sharing of confidential information on grant applications.

“We have an obligation to do all we can to protect our intellectual property and all state and federal resources entrusted to us,” said MD Anderson President Peter Pisters, MD. “We must be vigilant in protecting the outstanding work of our faculty and ensuring our continued ability to conduct world-class research in our pursuit to end cancer.”

According to the Houston Chronicle, which reported on the terminations, MD Anderson is not the only facility to be contacted by NiH. Dozens of other organisations have received emails from NiH with concerns about specific individuals who may have been recruited by foreign governments to steal proprietary research information. It is likely that these three actions will be the first of many over the coming weeks.

The FBI has reported that up to $600 billion is being lost each year to intellectual property theft. FBI Director Christopher Wray said China is the biggest threat and is engaging in espionage in all 50 states across multiple industries. There are particular concerns about scientific research being stolen from the US and used to run ‘shadow laboratories’ in other countries.