Even as a Chinese National remains jailed in Tulsa on charges of attempting to steal nearly $1 billion in Phillips 66 battery storage secrets in Bartlesville, the federal government has nearly 200 other investigations underway at major academic centers in the U.S.
Representatives of at least three major medical research centers in Oklahoma say to their knowledge no such FBI investigations focus on them or their researchers. But they have been notified of the nationwide investigation.
The National Institute for Health and the FBI launched their effort to locate scientists who reportedly are stealing biomedical research for other countries from U.S. institutions. Nearly all of those uncovered or are under investigation are scientists of Chinese descent including naturalized American citizens who are accused of stealing for China, according to a recent report by the New York Times.
At least 71 institutions, some of the most prestigious medical schools in the country are reported to be looking into 180 individual cases involving potential theft of intellectual property. What prompted the investigations? Letters sent by the N.I.H last year were mailed to 18,000 different institutions in which the administrators were urged to be vigilant in overseeing government grants.
OK Energy Today reached out to the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation’s Ryan Stewart who handles communications.
” I spoke with our legal counsel, and he said we have none at OMRF but that you would have to speak to other institutions to determine if they are the subject of any investigations (which I’m sure you are doing). And, yes, along with other institutions that receive NIH funds, we received the letter from Dr. Collins last year about it.”
The Dr. Collins he referred to is Dr. Francis Collins who is director of the National Institutes of Health based in Bethesda, Maryland.
At the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, April Sandefer, the Communications Director responded to our inquiry.
“To our knowledge there is no current investigation being conducted by the FBI or any other federal agencies. Having members of the FBI or any other federal agency visit campuses known for research isn’t an uncommon practice. As part of the FBI’s coordination with federal science and technology agencies, officials visit universities across the country to educate faculty and researchers on areas of emerging concerns.”
Melani Hamilton, Managing Director of Marketing and Communications at the OSU Center for Health Sciences in Tulsa also responded.
“We are not aware of any notification regarding any such investigations at OSU Center for Health Sciences,” she stated in an email response to OK Energy Today.
So far, the N.I.H. has referred 24 cases in which there may be evidence of criminal activity to the inspector general’s office of the Department of Health and Human Services, which may turn over the cases for criminal prosecution.
The Times reported the investigations have fanned fears that China is exploiting the relative openness of the American scientific system to engage in wholesale economic espionage. At the same time, the scale of the dragnet has sent a tremor through the ranks of biomedical researchers, some of whom say ethnic Chinese scientists are being unfairly targeted for scrutiny as Washington’s geopolitical competition with Beijing intensifies.
The alleged theft involves not military secrets, but scientific ideas, designs, devices, data and methods that may lead to profitable new treatments or diagnostic tools.
Some researchers under investigation have obtained patents in China on work funded by the United States government and owned by American institutions, the N.I.H. said. Others are suspected of setting up labs in China that secretly duplicated American research, according to government officials and university administrators.
The researcher arrested in December 2018 in Bartlesville, site of the Phillips 66 Research and Technology Center, the company’s largest in the world, remains jailed in Tulsa.
Hongjin Tan is accused of stealing battery storage research material which had a product value of $1.4 billion to $1.8 billion. He allegedly downloaded the information from his company computers to a private computer as he notified Phillips 66 that he was resigning to take a job in China.
Federal prosecutors say email exchanges revealed he was going to sell the information to a company in China. Trial dates have been rescheduled at least three to four different times and at last word, court records showed a new date will be set sometime in January 2020.
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