Carper, Portman Bipartisan Report Reveals Lack of Federal Response to China’s Talent Recruitment Plans

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senators Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the Ranking Member and Chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), unveiled a new bipartisan report titled Threats to the U.S. Research Enterprise: China’s Talent Recruitment Plans.  The report documents how American taxpayers have been unwittingly funding the rise of China’s economy and military over the last two decades while federal agencies have done little to stop it.  The Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations will hold a hearing on the report tomorrow, November 19, 2019, at 10:00 am. A livestream of the hearing will be available here.

Starting in the late 1990s through its “talent recruitment plans,” China began recruiting U.S.-based scientists and researchers and incentivizing them to transfer U.S. taxpayer-funded intellectual property to China for China’s own economic and military gain.  China pledged to spend 15 percent of its GDP, more than $2 trillion, on improving human resources from 2008 to 2020. The Subcommittee investigated China’s most prominent talent recruitment plan:  The Thousand Talents Plan (TTP).  Launched in 2008, TTP incentivizes individuals engaged in research and development to transmit the knowledge and research they gain in the United States to China in exchange for salaries, research funding, lab space, and other incentives. 

Over the course of an eight-month investigation, the Subcommittee examined seven federal agencies’ efforts to combat the theft of American taxpayer-funded research and technology through Chinese talent recruitment programs.  While China has a strategic plan to acquire knowledge and intellectual property from researchers, scientists, and the U.S. private sector, the U.S. government does not have a comprehensive strategy to combat this threat.  The seven federal agencies reviewed by PSI include the Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy, State Department, Department of Commerce, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

“My bipartisan report with Senator Portman shows the sophisticated ways in which the Chinese government continues to exploit our federal grant programs to recruit U.S. researchers and scientists and, ultimately, transfer research that is funded by American taxpayers back to China. Not only does this squander taxpayer dollars, but it contributes to China’s economic and military rise,” said Senator Carper. “As a former governor, I know that it’s our job as elected officials to create a nurturing environment for job creation and job preservation. And I strongly believe that, in order to preserve our economic competitiveness and protect our national security, we must continue to support international partnerships – particularly those in the fields of science and technology research – that help to foster that nurturing environment. But today’s report makes clear that there are serious consequences that come from giving a foreign government so much control over the vital research we rely on to drive our country’s economic competitiveness and bolster our national defense. I am interested in hearing from experts about smart ways we can strengthen our nation’s response to the threats posed by China’s talent recruitment efforts and better secure our vital federal research programs. I also look forward to continue working with Senator Portman on bipartisan legislation to mitigate the economic and military gains our competitors and adversaries might obtain due to our inaction.”

“This report reveals that American taxpayers have been unwittingly funding the rise of China’s economy and military over the last two decades by detailing not only the lengths and expense China has gone to in order to steal American intellectual property, but also the shocking fact that our own federal agencies have done little to stop their actions despite being aware of China’s talent plans,” said Senator Portman. “These talent plans are a win-win for China. China wins twice. First, the American taxpayer funds China’s research and development. Second, China uses that research to improve its economic and military status. This is unacceptable and I look forward to working with Senator Carper on bipartisan legislation to end this abuse of American research, intellectual property, and taxpayer money.”

The report’s key findings include:

  • China seeks to become a science and technology (“S&T”) world leader by 2050.  The Chinese government elevated the importance of S&T as a key national strategic goal in 2006. China seeks to become an “innovative country” by 2020 and an S&T world leader by 2050. To accomplish its goals, China systematically targets critical technologies and advanced S&T capabilities as a way to enhance national strength and achieve Chairman Xi Jinping’s goal of “national rejuvenation.”
  • China aggressively recruits overseas researchers and scientists.  China has a coordinated global campaign to recruit overseas S&T experts as part of its S&T strategy.  These experts provide access to know-how, expertise, and foreign technology—all necessary for China’s economic development and military modernization.  Chinese recruitment efforts also have begun to reverse China’s brain drain, as more Chinese students than before are returning to China after studying abroad.
  • The Thousand Talents Plan (“TTP”) is China’s most prominent talent recruitment plan.  Launched in 2008 and controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, the TTP recruits thousands of high-quality overseas talents.  As of 2017, China reportedly has recruited 7,000 researchers and scientists.  The TTP targets U.S.-based researchers and scientists, regardless of ethnicity or citizenship, who focus on or have access to cutting-edge research and technology.  The TTP is just one of over 200 Chinese talent recruitment plans over which the Chinese Communist Party is able to “exert exceptional” levels of control.  In response to U.S. government scrutiny, China has attempted to delete online references to its talent recruitment plans and reportedly instructed Chinese institutions on how to avoid additional U.S. scrutiny.
  • TTP employment contracts violate U.S. research values.  TTP members sign legally binding contracts with Chinese institutions that contain provisions that violate U.S. research values, including non-disclosure provisions related to their research and employment with Chinese institutions.  The contracts require TTP members to undermine fundamental U.S. scientific norms of transparency, reciprocity, merit-based competition, and integrity.  Fundamentally, these contracts incentivize TTP members to put China’s interests ahead of U.S. institutions.
  • Federal agencies are not prepared to prevent China from transferring taxpayer-funded research and stealing intellectual property.  The U.S. government was slow to address the threat of China’s talent recruitment plans, leading to U.S. government grant dollars and private-sector technologies being repurposed to support China’s economic and military goals.  Though some federal agencies have begun to take action, the federal government lacks an effective interagency strategy and continues to have shortfalls in its processes to mitigate the threat that Chinese talent recruitment plans pose.
  • The FBI recognized that it and other federal agencies were “slow to recognize the threat of the Chinese talent [recruitment] plans” until recently. Despite the Chinese government publicly announcing in 2008 its intent to recruit overseas researchers with access to advanced research and technology, FBI’s headquarters in Washington D.C. did not take control of the response to the threat until mid-2018. The FBI took nearly two years to coordinate the dissemination of information identifying potential talent recruitment plan participants to federal grant-making agencies. The FBI has yet to develop an effective, nationwide strategy to warn universities, government laboratories, and the broader public of the risks of foreign talent recruitment plans.
  • Federal grant-making agencies lack standards and coordination.  U.S. grant-making agencies, such as the National Science Foundation (“NSF”) and the National Institutes of Health (“NIH”), each require grant applicants to use different forms and processes to apply for federally funded research grants.  This increases administrative burdens on researchers applying for grants from multiple federal agencies.  It also complicates effective grant oversight of the more than $150 billion in U.S. funding awarded annually for research and development.


The report makes the following recommendations:

  • Federal agencies must develop a comprehensive strategy to combat both illegal and extralegal transfers of U.S. intellectual capital.  China uses illegal and extralegal mechanisms to acquire U.S. intellectual property, research, and sensitive technologies.  Federal agencies should work with the U.S. research community to balance the need for international collaboration while securing U.S.-government funded research.
  • Federal agencies should declassify and disseminate more information on foreign talent recruitment plans.  Additional information from the U.S. intelligence community, federal law enforcement, and federal grant-making agencies will help define the scope and scale of the problem so that U.S. research institutions can effectively mitigate risks associated with foreign talent recruitment plans.
  • While taking steps to better protect research and intellectual property, Congress and the Executive Branch should reaffirm the critical importance of foreign students and researchers in the United States and the importance of international research collaboration.  Congress should provide stable and sustained funding for scientific research sponsored by federal agencies and support programs aimed at keeping scientists and their work in the United States.
  • Federal law enforcement agencies and members of the intelligence community must better tailor engagement with the U.S. research community to ensure that threat information is accessible and actionable.  The FBI should develop a cohesive strategy to ensure outreach by its headquarters and 56 field offices is effective, consistent, and timely. 
  • The U.S. research community should establish a “Know Your Collaborator” culture.  U.S. research institutions should establish best practices in monitoring scientific and research collaboration with foreign nationals and determining whether such collaboration adheres to U.S. scientific research values, especially in the area of research integrity.  U.S. research institutions also should investigate and adjudicate allegations of failures to disclose conflicts of interest, commitment, or other outside support.
  • The administration should consider updating NSDD-189 and implement additional, limited restrictions on U.S. government-funded fundamental research.  NSDD-189 was issued in 1985 and established the national policy that products of fundamental research are to remain unrestricted to the maximum extent possible.  Federal agencies must not only combat illegal transfers of controlled or classified research, but assess whether openly sharing some types of fundamental research is in the nation’s interest.
  • Federal law enforcement and other relevant agencies should identify U.S.-based entities that serve as recruitment networks, platforms, or foreign government proxies that facilitate or broker in state-sponsored talent recruitment.  Additional investigations and publications are needed to fully understand the impact of foreign talent recruitment efforts in the United States.  Federal law enforcement and other relevant agencies should examine the extent of foreign talent recruitment activity in the private sector for foreign talent recruitment-related programs, including venture capital contests and entrepreneurial programs.
  • Grant-making agencies should not award U.S. funding to participants of foreign talent recruitment programs absent full disclosure of the terms and conditions of membership in any talent recruitment program.