Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), at today’s hearing of a Senate panel that oversees NIH’s budget.

Senate Appropriations Committee

Universities will soon announce action against scientists who broke NIH rules, agency head says

Some U.S. universities will announce in the next week or two actions they have taken to prevent foreign governments from taking unfair advantage of research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, NIH Director Francis Collins said today. Some researchers could be fired, Collins suggested.

“There are multiple instances of faculty members who will not be faculty members anymore,” he told reporters after testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee panel that oversees NIH’s budget.

During the hearing, Senator Roy Blunt (R–MO), the panel’s chair, asked Collins about NIH’s ongoing efforts to ensure that grantees are complying with agency rules on disclosing foreign ties, protecting the confidentiality of peer review, and handling intellectual property. “Something that the research community needs to take more seriously,” Blunt said in his opening remarks, is “that foreign governments are initiating systematic ways to influence our research and frankly to take advantage of our research by stealing it.” Blunt mentioned China in particular, which he said has a “government program to recruit NIH-funded researchers” to set up shadow labs in China and steal U.S. intellectual property and confidential grant information. “I think NIH has to be sure that the research community is fully aware of the threats and more importantly, how to combat those threats,” Blunt said.

In response, Collins said NIH is “deeply concerned about the evidence which has been growing and which we’ve been becoming increasingly aware of over the course of more than a year that there are instances, egregious instances where our funding of grants in this country is being taken advantage of by individuals who are not following the appropriate rules. This is utterly unacceptable.”

Collins told Blunt that investigations of NIH-funded foreign scientists are underway at more than 55 U.S. institutions. The investigations appear related to letters that NIH sent to universities beginning last fall, as Science has reported. Collins said during the hearing that some scientists have been found guilty of “double dipping,” or not disclosing foreign funding for work also being supported by NIH; “diverting intellectual property” that belongs to their U.S. institution; or sending grant proposals to another country, allowing “ideas to be stolen.”

Collins first wrote NIH’s 10,000 grantee institutions in August 2018 asking them to look for problems. “I think there was initially some surprise and maybe even denial,” he told Blunt. But now, “There are increasing instances where faculty have been fired, have been asked to leave the institution, many of them then returning back to their previous foreign base.” The cases are not limited to scientists from China, Collins told Blunt.

“Actions are being taken and you will see more evidence of that in the press, particularly in the next week or two,” Collins said.

Both Collins and Blunt emphasized that most NIH-funded foreign scientists working in the United States follow the rules and make valuable contributions to research. “We need to be careful that we don’t step into something that almost seems a little like racial profiling,” said Collins, noting that Science recently published letters from Chinese scientists expressing concern about being unfairly targeted.  

Blunt told reporters that he was satisfied with Collins’s responses. “I do think that NIH has been very engaged in trying to determine where problems might be and how to prevent those same kinds of problems in the future. We’re going to continue to keep an eye on that and I believe they are, too.”