The National Institutes of Health has referred 16 allegations related to foreign influence of U.S.-funded research to investigators and contacted 61 research institutions about such concerns, federal health officials said at a hearing Wednesday.
Dr. Lawrence Tabak, the NIH’s principal deputy director, said the problem stems from “a small proportion of scientists” who, among other concerns, have failed to disclose ties to foreign governments on grant applications. But he and others noted the contributions foreign-born researchers generally make to U.S. innovation, discoveries, and the economy.
“We cannot afford to reject brilliant minds working honestly and collaboratively to provide hope and healing to millions around the world,” he told the Senate Finance Committee.
Lawmakers and federal agencies have been increasingly scrutinizing allegations that foreign governments are spying on U.S.-funded research projects, stealing intellectual property, obtaining grant applications, and rigging the grant awarding process. Last year, NIH Director Francis Collins told thousands of grantee institutions to set up briefings with the FBI about protecting their research endeavors.
Senators and health and national security officials at the hearing Wednesday identified China, along with Iran and Russia, as key culprits in the scientific spy games. But the officials declined to answer senators’ questions about the specifics of the investigations or the threats in a public session; the hearing was scheduled to go into a classified session later Wednesday afternoon.
The 16 “grant fraud” referrals to the health department’s Office of Inspector General largely pertain to researchers failing to disclose ties to foreign governments on grant applications, said Les Hollie, the chief of investigative operations at the office. He said the investigations were ongoing.
Tabak said the NIH is learning about potentially concerning activity through its own oversight of the grant application process, referrals from other agencies, and, increasingly, universities themselves, which, he said, are becoming more aware of the issue of foreign interference in research and efforts to take advantage of U.S.-backed science.
Tabak said that the NIH’s concerns have led to researchers being removed from grants and, in some ceases, being fired from their institutions.
In recent months, both MD Anderson Cancer Center and Emory University have pushed out researchers over allegations they did not disclosure foreign support for their work and ties to institutions in China. But the crackdown has also cast a pall over the research community, with concerns that Chinese and Chinese-American scientists may be unfairly suspected of having ulterior motives in their work or that foreign-born scientists will no longer want to come work at U.S. institutions.
“Let’s be careful not to overreach,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the ranking member of the committee, said at the hearing.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the committee’s chairman, cautioned that foreign undermining of U.S.-backed research threatened the openness and cooperation typically celebrated by scientists.
“Truly free collaboration and exchange of information is only possible when data and sources are credible, and the research process can be trusted,” he said. “That trust is destroyed when foreign governments and other entities interfere in our research for their gain and to our detriment.”
Grassley also criticized the FBI for not sending an official to the hearing. He said the FBI had declined to explain why it wouldn’t participate.