Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Senator Chuck Grassley (R–IA) has been concerned about foreign powers poaching U.S.-funded research.

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP Images

NIH asks federal watchdog to investigate 12 allegations related to foreign influence

A newly released letter from a government watchdog has shed a little light on an ongoing U.S. government effort to scrutinize federally funded biomedical research for potentially problematic foreign involvement.

The letter reveals that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, recently asked federal investigators to review 12 allegations of rule violations, mostly involving researchers at U.S. universities who allegedly failed to disclose foreign affiliations on their grant proposals.

The letter also discloses that over the past 5 years, investigators at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), NIH’s parent agency, referred two cases to prosecutors that involved federally funded scientists who allegedly failed to disclose foreign ties or stole intellectual property. Neither of those cases appears to have involved NIH. (HHS also oversees other research agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) In both cases, the Department of Justice declined to file civil or criminal charges.

The 31 January letter, released yesterday by Senator Chuck Grassley (R–IA), is signed by HHS Inspector General (IG) Daniel Levinson. It responds to a series of questions posed in a 17 January letter from Grassley, chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance and one of many members of Congress who have raised concerns that China and other nations are exploiting U.S.-funded research for their own benefit.

In August 2018, such concerns led NIH to send a letter to more than 10,000 research institutions, urging them to ensure that NIH grantees are properly reporting their foreign ties. NIH and HHS officials also suggested they were investigating about a half-dozen cases in which agency-funded investigators may have broken reporting rules, although they were vague about the details or scope of their review.

Now, some details have emerged from Levinson’s response to Grassley’s request to detail the steps his office is taking “to protect the integrity of medical research from foreign threats.” The 12 recent referrals, for example, “appear to primarily involve Principal Investigators on NIH grants conducting medical research at U.S. universities who allegedly have failed to disclose foreign affiliations on their grant applications,” his letter states. NIH also referred 51 additional allegations to Levinson’s office over the past 5 years, but “none involved foreign contributions.”

In general, the letter notes, the IG first evaluates whether an allegation merits a full investigation by HHS or another agency. And, “When evaluating referrals, [the IG] is sensitive to the fact that academic and professional reputations could easily be damaged by erroneous allegations,” the letter states.

The IG ultimately can refer some allegations to federal prosecutors, such as the two cases mentioned in the letter. One of those involved allegations of a “failure to disclose foreign government funding.” The other focused on an allegation of intellectual property theft. (The letter provides no further details.)

The HHS IG does not have the legal authority to investigate allegations that a federally funded scientist is acting as “an agent of a foreign government,” the letter notes. That job is given to other agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In a statement, Grassley said he intends to keep pressing on the issue. “Foreign threats to our taxpayer-funded research and American intellectual property must be taken seriously,” he said. “I intend to continue scrutinizing this area so taxpayers get their money’s worth when funding this research and foreign actors can’t pilfer the good work done by legitimate researchers.”