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NIH investigating whether U.S. scientists are sharing ideas with foreign governments

Fears that foreign governments are tapping U.S.-funded research for valuable information have reached the nation’s largest research funder, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. Last week it sent a letter to more than 10,000 research institutions, urging them to ensure that NIH grantees are properly reporting their foreign ties. The agency also said it is investigating about a half-dozen cases in which NIH-funded investigators may have broken reporting rules, and it reminded researchers who review grant applications that they should not share proposal information with outsiders.

At a Senate committee hearing on NIH oversight last week, NIH Director Francis Collins said “the robustness of the biomedical research enterprise is under constant threat” and “the magnitude of these risks is increasing,” although he did not mention specific incidents. He added that in addition to sending the 20 August letter asking institutions to help curb “unacceptable breaches of trust and confidentiality,” NIH has established a new advisory group to help the agency tighten procedures.

NIH is feeling pressure from Congress. At the hearing of the Senate health committee that oversees NIH, chair Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN) lauded the contributions of foreign-born scientists to the United States but worried about “bad actors.” His comments reflect a resurgence of concern about foreign competitors to the United States—especially China, Russia, and Iran—attempting to harvest the fruits of federal investments in academic science. This past March, federal prosecutors indicted nine Iranians on charges of hacking into the accounts of nearly 4000 professors at 144 U.S. universities and stealing data that cost $3.4 billion to develop. In another case, a professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, has alleged that a Chinese doctoral student working in his laboratory on materials for “cloaking” objects from electromagnetic waves returned to China with sensitive, government-funded findings that he used to start a billion-dollar tech company. Such incidents have prompted the Federal Bureau of Investigation to begin to meet with university officials to brief them on information security issues.

Adding to the worries is the growing number of researchers who receive funding from—and run laboratories in—the United States and another nation, potentially opening a conduit for the transfer of data and technology. U.S.-based scientists are also being targeted by so-called talent recruitment programs run by China and others, which use the promise of lucrative funding to establish ties with foreign institutions.

In general, NIH and other federal research funders don’t bar grantees from receiving foreign funding and encourages them to freely share the results of funded research unless the government stamps it as classified. But grantees do have to inform the government if they patent research discoveries as well as disclose all sources of funding when applying for a grant.

Collins told Science that NIH’s interest in the issue was prompted not by “some big explosive episode” involving a violation of such rules, but “just a gathering sense that it’s time to take action.” Agency officials have spotted NIH-funded papers noting foreign support that had not been properly disclosed to NIH itself, for instance. The agency also is concerned about NIH-funded scientists who spend several months a year in their home country at what Collins called shadow labs, making it hard to tell which country is funding their discoveries. NIH won’t name the six or so institutions that it is investigating, but Collins told STAT that the agency is concerned that some researchers have hidden their foreign ties because they intend to share intellectual property or private information with other nations. But it “may all turn out to be fine—they forgot to tell us something,” he says.

NIH also is moving to defend its peer-review system, which annually uses thousands of volunteer reviewers to evaluate more than 80,000 applications—many of which include unpublished findings. A particular concern, the letter states, is “sharing of confidential information on grant applications by NIH peer reviewers with others, including foreign entities.”

Academic groups say they share NIH’s concerns. Schools “look forward to working with NIH to identify opportunities to mitigate breaches and help ensure accurate reporting,” says Lisa Nichols of the Council on Governmental Relations in Washington, D.C., which tracks regulatory issues for universities. They can’t always uncover problematic foreign links on their own, adds Tobin Smith of the Association of American Universities, also in Washington, D.C. “We’re going to have to do a better job of making sure that faculty are being honest,” he says.

Some lawmakers in Congress would like to see stricter oversight of foreign-funded projects on U.S. campuses. A draft amendment to a recent defense spending bill, for example, would have allowed the Pentagon to bar funding for U.S.-based researchers who received support from talent recruitment programs funded by foreign governments. The provision—perceived as targeting China—was ultimately shelved in favor of language ordering the Department of Defense to work with universities to examine the risks and benefits of such arrangements.