The Biden administration is preparing to give a free pass to researchers and scientists who knowingly defrauded U.S. taxpayers in cooperation with China, a group of Republican senators warned.
The administration has yet to announce the amnesty plan but is expected to start the program in the next few weeks, according to the senators, who raised alarm about it in a letter Thursday to Attorney General Merrick Garland.
The number of scientists and researchers who would stand to benefit from an amnesty is massive and multiplying constantly. More than 500 scientists involved in federally funded research are under investigation for being compromised by China and other foreign adversaries, National Institutes of Health officials told Congress last month.
“We applaud federal prosecutors for bringing more than a dozen criminal cases against researchers and professors who allegedly stole intellectual property or failed to disclose partnerships with foreign governments, including with the People’s Republic of China (PRC),” the senators wrote. “We are concerned about the effect that this amnesty program will have on those ongoing criminal cases and the signal that it sends to future researchers contemplating breaking U.S. law to steal research or hide affiliations with foreign governments or militaries.”
The apparent amnesty for scientists who steal American technological innovation for China and others was uncovered by the lawmakers in material gathered by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and in public reporting, Capitol Hill sources said.
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said last year that the bureau opens a China-related counterintelligence case “about every 10 hours.” The probes have revealed technological thefts involving, among other things, corn-growing techniques and the formula for coating inside Coca-Cola cans.
China and other foreign adversaries use government-sponsored talent recruitment programs to target American innovation. The Justice Department said last month that university researcher and math professor Mingqing Xiao hid Chinese government aid while obtaining funding from the National Science Foundation. The U.S. charged the researcher with wire fraud.
Concerns about the Biden administration’s possible amnesty for scientists also threatened to undermine support for a bipartisan bill championed by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, that would greatly increase research funding for the National Science Foundation, Senate sources said.
Mr. Schumer and six other Senate Democrats teamed with seven Republican senators on the Endless Frontier Act, which proposes to route $100 billion to the agency from fiscal 2022 to 2026. Congress appropriated $8.3 billion for the agency in fiscal 2020.
Some Republicans now worry that coupling the amnesty with the infusion of $100 billion would put taxpayer dollars in the pockets of China-allied scientists.
On Thursday, the senators writing to Mr. Garland said the Justice Department had not contacted the inspector general community, including at the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, about the amnesty program.
The Justice Department also did not consult with Congress about the amnesty program, said the eight Republican senators who signed the letter.
Signing the letter were Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Marco Rubio of Florida, John Cornyn of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Susan M. Collins of Maine, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Todd Young of Indiana and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa.
“America’s successful research enterprise is built on reciprocity, integrity and transparency. These values foster a free exchange of ideas and ensure that researchers and institutions receive the benefit of hard work,” they wrote. “As a result, America attracts the best and the brightest. It needs to stay that way. But the United States must also take reasonable steps to protect taxpayer-funded research from theft, diversion, and ultimately weaponization against our own long-term national interests. This is a complex problem, but an amnesty program rewarding individuals who broke federal law to steal U.S. taxpayer-funded research is simply not the answer.”
NIH referred questions about the amnesty program to the Justice Department.
A National Science Foundation spokesperson likewise directed questions involving the senators’ letter to the Justice Department, which did not respond to requests for comment.
“The U.S. National Science Foundation takes research security seriously and to ensure the integrity of federally funded research while maintaining an open international collaboration, NSF’s [Chief of Research Security Strategy and Policy] (CRSSP) works in coordination with other federal agencies and the White House to develop and implement strategies to improve research security,” said a National Science Foundation spokesperson. “Since the establishment of the CRSSP position in March 2020, NSF has recouped millions of taxpayer dollars through award suspensions, terminations and debarments.”
The Biden administration has pivoted to a less-restrictive approach toward China than that of the Trump administration. The Department of Homeland Security withdrew plans to force schools to disclose agreements with Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes.
The senators who wrote to Mr. Garland recognized that the issues threatened the Endless Frontier Act and said they were working to address concerns about the bill, Senate sources said.
Three of the senators who wrote to Mr. Garland — Mr. Young, Ms. Collins and Mr. Portman — are co-sponsors of the Endless Frontier Act.
A planned vote on the bill was scuttled last week after 200 amendments were introduced, according to reports. Senate sources said a markup of the bill is expected next week.