Scientists as Spies? Assessing U.S. Claims about the Security Threat Posed by China's Thousand Talents Program for the U.S. Life Sciences

Kathleen Vogel, Sonia Ouagrham-Gormley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In 2008, the Chinese government created the Thousand Talents Program (TTP) to recruit overseas expertise to build up China's science and technology knowledge and innovation base. Ten years later, in 2018, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) announced a new "China Initiative" that aimed to counter the transfer of U.S.-based knowledge and intellectual property by U.S.-based scientists involved in the TTP that could support China's military and economic might and pose threats to U.S. national security. Over the past three years, the new initiative launched a number of investigations into major U.S. federal funding agencies and universities and charged several scientists, many of whom are life scientists, of not accurately reporting their work and affiliations with Chinese entities, and illegally transferring scientific information to China. Although the FBI cases demonstrate that there is a clear problem with disclosure of foreign contracts and research integrity among some TTP recipients, it has failed to demonstrate that they have in fact caused harm to U.S. national interests. At the heart of this controversy are core questions that remain unresolved and need more attention: What is required to transfer and develop knowledge to further a country's science and technology (S&T) ambitions? And can the knowledge acquired by a visiting scientist be easily used to further a country's ambitions? Drawing on literature from the field of science and technology studies, this article will discuss the key issues that should be considered in evaluating this question in the Chinese context and also discuss the potential scientific, intelligence, and policy implications of knowledge transfer as it relates to the TTP .

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalPolitics and the Life Sciences
StateAccepted/In press - 2022


  • China
  • intelligence
  • life sciences
  • policy
  • security
  • tacit knowledge
  • Thousand Talents Program

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Public Administration


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