WASHINGTON — The National Institutes of Health is investigating roughly a half-dozen research institutions based on suspicions that researchers with federal grants failed to disclose significant financial contributions from foreign governments, Director Francis Collins said Thursday.
The fact-finding operation, Collins said, will center in many cases on technology research.
“We are concerned about circumstances where people have intentionally been deceptive about those connections, with an intention to divert intellectual property or perhaps use their access to peer-review materials to ship them overseas,” Collins told reporters after a Senate hearing.
On Wednesday, Collins also wrote to roughly 10,000 NIH grant institutions encouraging them to set up briefings with FBI field offices about threats to intellectual property and foreign interference. The topic has been a focus for the FBI, Collins said, and the briefings would serve as an opportunity for select grant recipients — whose grants come with a level of security clearance — to hear about efforts to protect classified scientific information.
Separately, the NIH established a panel to improve research security and enforce rules that require researchers to disclose foreign financial contributions.
The topic of foreign interests influencing American research was top of mind across Capitol Hill on Thursday, as senators used an oversight hearing to press Collins for more information. Across the hallway, Kelvin Droegemeier, President Trump’s nominee to be White House science adviser, said China has a history of stealing American research advances.
“At the same time, as we welcome foreign researchers into the U.S.,” Droegemeier said, “I think historically they’ve been an important and very robust part of our enterprise — we have to do that with care.”
In the letter to grant institutions, Collins wrote: “NIH is aware that some foreign entities have mounted systematic programs to influence NIH researchers and peer reviewers and to take advantage of the long tradition of trust, fairness, and excellence of NIH-supported research activities.”
Collins requested information from NIH-funded institutions about three areas of concern. The first: whether their researchers failed to disclose contributions from other organizations, including foreign governments, which Collins said “threatens to distort” research outcomes.
The second: whether researchers at the institutions diverted intellectual property, as has been alleged recently at Duke University. A researcher who worked at a Duke lab in 2007 — who has since become a famous Chinese inventor — is accused of having worked on behalf of the Chinese government to steal intellectual property.
Though the Duke researcher was not funded by an NIH grant, the case has generated attention throughout the scientific community and spurred debate about how careful American research institutions should be in their work with foreign researchers.
Lastly, Collins expressed concern that some grant application reviewers might have failed to keep information in grant proposals confidential, including to foreign entities. He’s worried, he told senators, about those disclosures “or other attempts to influence funding decisions.”
At the hearing Thursday, committee chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) took care to emphasize that in almost every case, he supported the presence of talented foreign researchers in the U.S. and hoped the NIH would continue to fund them.
“We must move effectively to root out examples where the system is being exploited but make sure to preserve the vibrancy of the diverse workforce playing a major role in the American biomedical research success story,” Collins said.
Separately, the Senate on Thursday continued its consideration of a spending bill that would provide $39.1 billion in NIH funding in 2019, which would mark the fourth consecutive year in which the agency’s budget increased by roughly $2 billion.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the current status of a spending bill the Senate is considering.