Theft, espionage common concerns at U.S. campuses

Universities must learn to guard valuable data, discoveries, experts say

July 07, 2002|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Even if someone had spied them, roaming campus before dawn with Styrofoam cartons in hand, it's unlikely that Jiangyu Zhu and Kayoko Kimbara would have drawn a second look: Just two young Harvard University scientists scurrying home from an all-nighter in the lab.

But according to FBI agents who spent 18 months investigating the married couple, it wasn't hard work they had on their minds in December 1999 - it was theft.

Over the Christmas holidays on the mostly deserted campus, investigators allege, Zhu and Kimbara looted the laboratory, which was full of genes with "significant commercial potential." The genes, which the couple had helped discover and which Harvard was in the process of patenting, were thought to hold promise as new anti-rejection drugs for organ-transplant patients.

By the time their colleagues returned, Zhu and Kimbara had vanished, allegedly with more than $300,000 worth of biological and research materials. Harvard's genes, meanwhile, had been put on an airplane to Japan.

It sounds like something from a novel - and until recently the scenario would have seemed like fiction to most academic scientists. But as universities make more discoveries with commercial potential in fields from engineering to molecular biology, some experts believe that theft and economic espionage may become more common.

"This is something all universities are probably going to have to learn to live with," said Mark S. Frankel, director of the Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington.

Zhu and Kimbara are scheduled to appear in federal court in Boston this month on charges that they violated the Economic Espionage Act by stealing trade secrets from Harvard and transporting them across state lines. If convicted, the couple could be sentenced to 25 years in prison and fined as much as $750,000.

The case is just one of several recent tales of scientific theft on campus that have resulted in criminal charges.

In May, a University of California scientist was arrested when campus police raided his home and discovered 20 vials of experimental proteins and a plane ticket to China. His supervisors became suspicious of the 40- year-old Chinese-American man after the proteins went missing and he began to chirp about setting up a biotechnology company overseas.

Last year, a Japanese neuroscientist was indicted on charges that he swiped vials of DNA and other proprietary materials from the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio and took them home with him to Japan. The Japanese government is considering a U.S. request for extradition so he can be tried for allegedly violating the Economic Espionage Act.

`This is a business'

University administrators say they worry less about someone swiping genes or other potentially profitable discoveries than they do about terrorists stealing deadly bacteria, nuclear materials or other sensitive items from laboratories. Still, it's an issue that some experts say universities can't ignore.

"Ten or 15 years ago everybody used to think of universities as ivory towers," said Lawrence Sung, a specialist in intellectual property at the University of Maryland School of Law. Now, "people recognize this is a business."

In 2000, American universities and research institutions collected more than $1.2 billion in licensing fees, according to the latest survey from the Association of University Technology Managers. They announced 13,000 discoveries and filed 6,400 U.S. patent applications, 3,800 of which were approved.

The growing efforts to commercialize scientific discoveries made on campus have put some institutions in a quandary: how to balance traditions of academic openness and sharing with the desire to protect potentially lucrative discoveries.

Drug makers and other commercial researchers use a variety of legal and technological measures to safeguard their trade secrets. They conduct employee background checks and enforce strict rules about taking sensitive data or materials off the work site. Scientists must sign nondisclosure agreements about laboratory activities.

Research notebooks often have bar codes - similar to those on cereal boxes - to track their whereabouts. And some labs are secured with door locks that recognize a palm print. "That's foreign to the academic world," said Alvin Thompson of the American Society for Industrial Security.

Universities rarely conduct background checks on scientists. Some universities have adopted legal tools to try to prevent their scientists and other researchers who borrow materials from stealing discoveries. But most institutions have little more than locked doors to protect their valuables.

"You can secure microscopes and computers," said Thompson, who also heads security at the University of Maryland's College Park campus. "Intellectual property is a different story. Five or 10 years from now, we'll probably discover that most of the secrets have been stolen."

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