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Senator Chuck Grassley (R–IA) wants U.S. research agencies to pay more attention to foreign collaborations.

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Senator’s queries prompt NIH and NSF to clarify how they monitor foreign research ties

Responding to the rising concern within Congress that foreign governments are taking advantage of the open U.S. research enterprise, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have recently tweaked their grantmaking process to better monitor the foreign ties of the researchers they fund. And although there are subtle differences in how the two agencies are approaching the task, the goal is the same: to collect more information about the foreign affiliations of grantees. When it comes to policing suspicious relationships, however, neither agency sits in the driver’s seat.

Senator Chuck Grassley (R–IA), chair of the Senate Committee on Finance, has been leading a chorus of lawmakers who believe the large number of foreign-born scientists working in the United States—in particular those from China—pose a potential threat to the nation’s research enterprise. And they worry that U.S. universities and government agencies have been slow to respond. A longtime watchdog of federal spending practices, Grassley in recent months has sent nearly identical letters to NIH, NSF, and the Department of Defense (DOD) asking each agency about its practices in rooting out any illegal behavior.

Last week, NSF replied to a letter Grassley sent on 15 April. NIH responded at the end of 2018 to a query sent in October 2018, and DOD has yet to reply to a letter it received on 1 April.

Limited information

Each letter contains questions that address Grassley’s fears that the agencies aren’t doing enough. For example, he asks how much they are spending “to identify and investigate potential violations of the rules concerning foreign affiliations and financial” support for an investigator’s research. He also wants to know the number of institutions “currently under investigation [by the agency] for employing individuals who failed to disclose contributions from foreign governments.”

In their responses, NIH and NSF essentially duck both questions. NIH in Bethesda, Maryland, says the cost of monitoring its rules on foreign affiliations can’t be separated from its broader effort to ensure that grantees are complying with all of the agency’s rules. NSF in Alexandria, Virginia, says it works hand in glove with its Office of Inspector General (OIG), which conducts regular audits. NSF’s letter says OIG will reply separately to six of Grassley’s eight queries, noting “the sensitivity of ongoing investigations.”

Both agencies note that their inspectors general (which in the case of NIH is part of its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services) handle any cases in which there is reason to suspect that something is amiss. NIH also points out that some investigations are carried out by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Confusion over practices

The agencies were able to answer some of Grassley’s questions. And their answers highlight the senator’s apparent unfamiliarity with how research agencies perform their duties and interact with the academic community.

For example, his first question asks each agency “to describe in detail [how] it conducts background checks of research and institutions” before awarding them a grant. The assumption is that an eagle-eyed program manager should be able to spot a nefarious researcher intent on, say, stealing a patented technology or otherwise depriving Americans of the fruits of taxpayer-funded research.

The reality is that NIH and NSF do not perform such background checks. Instead of doing the vetting that legislators apparently think is going on, the agencies demand that grantee institutions certify the researcher is able to perform the work being funded. Institutions can certify that only if they have themselves met all the requirements that come with receiving a federal research grant.

“[G]rantee institutions are responsible for the personnel designated on their awards, not NIH,” Lawrence Tabak, NIH’s principal deputy director, explained in the agency’s reply to Grassley. “NIH determines if grant applicants are eligible to receive grant awards but does not conduct background checks.”

Institutions also don’t pry into a scientist’s background when certifying to funding agencies that the researcher can do the proposed work. And they certainly don’t ask why, say, a Chinese, Iranian, or Russian graduate student or postdoctoral researcher wants to come to the United States or—to get to the heart of Grassley’s worries—whether their government has asked them to spy on the U.S. research enterprise.

With respect to foreign scientists working in the United States, university administrators assume that anyone awarded the proper visa by the U.S. Department of State has a right to be in the country and participate in the research that has been funded. Any projects dealing with sensitive topics or involving technologies with military and national security implications are already subject to greater scrutiny, including the requirement in some cases that the researchers are U.S. citizens.

Reminders from NIH

Grassley’s letter did elicit some information about how the agencies have tightened up their procedures.

NIH’s letter notes, for example, that last year it “reminded its grantee institutions about their responsibilities.” That reminder included notifying NIH if a researcher on a grant “was no longer qualified or competent to perform the research objectives.” That is bureaucratic shorthand for an institution finding someone guilty of scientific misconduct or, worse, having the person face civil or criminal charges stemming from their actions as an NIH-funded researcher.

One bone of contention for university research administrators trying to follow the rules is how to interpret NIH’s requirement that applicants disclose all “foreign components” of their research. A scientist who spends a week lecturing at a foreign university, for example, might not disclose that trip on their grant application. But if the host university labels them a visiting scientist in promoting their talks, then NIH might wonder whether there is a financial aspect to that relationship.

What’s even more likely to raise eyebrows is a foreign scientist who spends 9 months in the United States working in the lab of a U.S. colleague with an NIH grant and then appears as a co-author on a paper published by the U.S. scientist. The visiting scientist is typically seen as a “free” pair of hands by the U.S. scientist because their government foots the bill. But to NIH, the foreign scientist’s name on a publication could suggest that an NIH grantee has failed to disclose a foreign component in their grant application or annual progress report.

New boxes at NSF

NSF used its response to Grassley to publicize changes it is making in the paperwork that accompanies every grant application and subsequent monitoring of the researcher it has funded.

“NSF is currently in the process of developing a clear, standardized, web-based disclosure form for researchers to list all sources of current and pending support,” explains the letter, signed by Fleming Crim, NSF’s chief operating officer. This change, Crim writes, “will provide NSF with the ability to better manage this data and ensure compliance with the disclosure requirements for all proposals submitted to the agency.”

One change NSF has already made is asking all grant applicants to check a box if their proposal requests funding for a foreign organization or an international branch campus of a U.S.-based institution. Anyone who checks the box must then explain why the research cannot be done at the U.S. institution and what the foreign collaborator brings to the table. NSF officials say that program managers and reviewers may have asked such questions in the past but that the checkbox increases the chances that the issue will be addressed during the review process.

NSF’s grants policy manual already requires investigators to list non-NSF projects to which they have allocated some of their time. That clause is not explicitly designed to flag foreign activities, however, nor would it cover things that did not warrant a designated fraction of the faculty member’s work week. “We are currently working toward further clarification of that long-standing requirement,” says Amanda Greenwell, head of NSF’s Office of Legislative and Public Affairs.

It is unlikely that the responses from NIH and NSF will end Grassley’s inquiries. In January, he stated that NIH’s letter “left many of my initial questions unanswered” and that he “will continue seeking answers on these and other important questions.” His office is still waiting to hear from DOD, a spokesperson noted. Meanwhile, Allison Lerner, NSF’s inspector general, hasn’t been given a deadline to submit her answers to the six questions she’s been tasked with addressing. But she is expected to move quickly, in line with NSF’s promise to Grassley that “we must take all reasonable and necessary steps to ensure the integrity of federally funded research.”