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NIH letters asking about undisclosed foreign ties rattle U.S. universities

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has recently sent letters to dozens of major U.S. research universities asking them to provide information about specific faculty members with NIH funding who are believed to have links to foreign governments that the Bethesda, Maryland–based institute did not know about.

Universities are scrambling to respond to the unprecedented queries, which appear to be NIH’s response to demands from members of Congress and national security officials that federal agencies do a better job of monitoring any foreign interactions fostered by U.S. government funding. The goal is to prevent the theft of intellectual property and the transfer of technologies that could threaten U.S. security. But some academic administrators worry the exercise could cast a chill over all types of international scientific collaborations.

“People have already told me that they are rethinking whether they should continue to work with someone from another country,” says one administrator who requested anonymity. “They say, ‘Maybe I should just do the work myself, or find a U.S.-based collaborator.’” The official was one of several who confirmed to ScienceInsider that their university had received such a letter; all requested anonymity.

Another fear is that the inquiry may become a vehicle to impugn the loyalty of any faculty member—and especially any foreign-born scientists—who maintains overseas ties. For example, ScienceInsider has learned that at some institutions, every researcher flagged by NIH is Chinese-American.

The vaguely worded letters don’t contain specific accusations. Rather, they ask the university to explain a faculty member’s apparent failure to disclose a foreign connection to NIH.

It is not clear how the agency developed its list of targeted researchers. One possibility is a data-mining exercise designed to flag cases in which a scientist cites a relationship to a foreign entity in a journal article or other public document that wasn’t disclosed in their NIH grant application or annual progress report to the agency. University officials have told ScienceInsider that some allegations have turned out to be unfounded, either because no such relationship exists or because NIH was unaware that it had been disclosed.

Last summer, NIH Director Francis Collins hinted that such personalized letters might be on their way. In a 20 August 2018 missive to more than 10,000 institutions, he asserted that “threats to the integrity of U.S. biomedical research exist” and highlighted the failure to disclose “substantial resources from other organizations, including foreign governments.” Collins wrote that “in the weeks and months ahead you may be hearing from [NIH] regarding … requests about specific … personnel from your institution.”

NIH officials have declined to discuss any aspect of the process. But one university administrator told ScienceInsider that a wave of letters sent in January targeted 77 institutions. NIH typically asked the schools to reply within 1 month but didn’t specify how universities were to obtain the requested information or how the agency might use the answers.

One possibility, however, is that NIH could refer the matter to its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). A failure to disclose foreign ties on an NIH grant application violates long-standing departmental rules and could lead to sanctions. (Such disclosure is part of a broader NIH requirement that scientists must declare “all financial resources … in direct support of [their] research endeavors.”) Last month. Senator Charles Grassley (R–IA) revealed that NIH has asked HHS to investigate 12 such cases, but the lawmaker did not say how NIH learned of the allegations.

NIH’s description of what kinds of foreign ties and activities are covered by the disclosure policy leaves a lot of ambiguity, according to several university officials. For example, must a researcher disclose an honorary degree from a foreign university, or only a joint appointment to that university? Do fees a researcher gets from consulting represent a source of “direct support” for their research? Should researchers disclose a collaboration with a foreign scientist in which no funds are co-mingled, but that results in a co-authored publication in which the U.S. scientist cites the foreign colleague’s source of funding as a matter of professional courtesy?

University officials say it’s never been clear whether disclosure rules also apply to research done on a faculty member’s own time, for example, during the summer if they receive only a 9-month salary from their university. Many universities don’t pay too much attention to what faculty members are doing while they are off the payroll, so long as it doesn’t interfere or conflict with their teaching and administrative duties.

In discussions with university administrators, NIH officials have cited three ways that undeclared foreign ties can damage the research enterprise. The first is by stealing a researcher’s time from other projects, leading to what NIH calls a conflict of commitment. The second is having the work be largely redundant with an existing NIH grant and, thus, a waste of government funds. The third relates to the size of the investment; a large foreign contribution, NIH officials have said, creates “a substantial distortion” of NIH’s portfolio.

In the past, university officials say, any confusion over the disclosure rules would be worked out amicably in discussions with NIH. But one academic research administrator who requested anonymity worries that the wave of letters suggest a once collegial relationship may have turned adversarial.

“I’m supposed to be fostering our institution’s relationship with government funding agencies,” the official says. “But these letters strike a very different tone. And to be honest, I don’t have the bandwidth to be an auditor as well as a facilitator.”

More worrisome, the official says, is the message it could be sending to U.S. researchers: If you want to avoid trouble, don’t stray beyond the border in pursuit of the next breakthrough in science.