Biotech leaders speak out against dismissals of Chinese scientists

China's theft of intellectual property from the U.S. and other countries isn’t new—remember the Genentech scientists and the GlaxoSmithKline researchers who funneled trade secrets to associates in China and Taiwan? But a government crackdown to counter theft has highlighted another threat, one that could damage U.S. leadership in the life sciences. 

“Recently, some scientists from China, or American-born of Chinese heritage, have been summarily dismissed from their university positions, creating a climate of fear and uncertainty in our biomedical communities,” wrote Jeremy Levin, Ovid Therapeutic CEO and Chairman of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, along with Alnylam CEO John Maraganore, Decibel CEO Steven Holtzman, and Acorda CEO Ron Cohen in a letter that was signed by more than 150 industry leaders. 

The letter comes one year after the National Institutes of Health started a campaign to enforce rules requiring that scientists receiving its grants report their foreign ties. Since August 2018, the agency has sent about 180 letters to more than 60 institutions in the U.S., flagging individual scientists that it believes have broken those rules, according to a report in Science. 

The NIH’s effort led to the well-publicized dismissal of five scientists—all Asian-American—from MD Anderson Cancer Center and Emory University. Other universities have fired researchers quietly, in cases that have stayed confidential, Michael Lauer, head of NIH’s extramural research program, told Science. 

Though NIH officials say the rules they are enforcing are not new, the agency’s actions still stoke fear. And it may not stop here—Lauer told Science that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if other government agencies began similar crackdowns. 

The biotech executives acknowledged the threat of IP theft in their letter but warned against the dangers of limiting collaboration across borders. 

“Let us be clear: we must absolutely guard against foreign espionage and IP theft, and prosecute those who engage in it, whatever their origins,” they wrote. “At the same time, actions that more broadly limit collaboration between Chinese and American scientists and companies would be deleterious to our national interests; so too would limitations on American residents of Chinese origin receiving government research funding or being employed by the NIH.” 

RELATED: U.S. looks to extradite Chinese researcher in GSK trade secrets case: Reuters 

They urged universities and government agencies to “communicate and consistently apply their rules governing scientific collaborations and IP obligations,” stressing transparency to avoid creating an “atmosphere of intimidation.” 

Such an environment “will encourage many outstanding scientists of Chinese origin to leave the US or never to come. In addition, scientists from other countries who are working in the U.S. cannot fail to get the message that they may well be next.” 

The letter echoes themes that Levin brought up at this year’s BIO International Convention. 

He spoke about a different threat at BIO—the advent of legislation that could stymie biotech innovation and cost it its position as a leader in the space. 

“There’s a consequence to not having understanding. The consequence is you have ill-advised bills [in Congress] which will attack the system and diminish the ability to find new medicines,” he said. “And a short-term political gain will be turned into a long-term disaster.” 

If innovation slows down, or even “comes to a shuddering halt,” Levin said, “we will throw away all the benefits of our industry and we’ll hand over strategic assets to countries that view this as their potential future. China, for example. It’s not something I think people want to suffer.” 

The letter is still open to new signatures and will be published in Nature Biotechnology.