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Senator Chuck Grassley (RIA) chairs the Senate Finance Committee.

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Powerful U.S. senator calls for vetting NIH grantees at hearing on foreign influences

Research typically enjoys bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress. But when it comes to the increasingly contentious topic of academic espionage by foreign governments, politics is never far from the surface.

At a hearing yesterday of the Senate Committee on Finance, Chairman Chuck Grassley (RIA) urged federal agencies to do more to thwart “real, aggressive, and ongoing” attempts by foreign entities to steal the fruits of U.S.-funded research. His to-do list included a thorough vetting of the foreign affiliations of potential grantees, something that’s not done now.

But the top Democrat on the influential panel, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, warned that taking new steps to root out would-be spies could damage the traditionally open U.S. research enterprise. Those concerned about the vitality of U.S. research, Wyden said, should instead be worrying about the “antiscience” policies of President Donald Trump.

The title of the hearing—“Foreign threats to taxpayer-funded research: Oversight opportunities and policy solutions”—reflects Grassley’s view that China and other countries are taking advantage of lax U.S. policies. The hearing focused on biomedical research, which meant shining a spotlight on how the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has cracked down on researchers who have failed to disclose foreign sources of support in their grant applications and progress reports on their NIH-funded research.

NIH has notified 61 universities and research institutions of apparent violations by faculty members of its rules regarding foreign affiliations, Principal Deputy NIH Director Lawrence Tabak told the committee. The probe, which began in August 2018, has generated 16 cases that NIH deemed egregious enough to notify the inspector general of its parent body, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). And it has led to the publicly known departures of five faculty members at two institutions—MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, and Emory University in Atlanta.

Why not background checks?

Grassley opened the hearing by praising NIH for its role in making the United States “the best of the best when it comes to cutting-edge medical research.” But he was clearly troubled by differences in the personnel rules that govern its extramural program, which provides funding to nongovernment scientists working at universities around the country, and those applying to NIH-employed scientists who work at the agency’s main campus in Bethesda, Maryland. NIH employees undergo the same vetting as any government employee, he noted, whereas the academic researchers do not.

“Does NIH conduct background checks, including a review for counterintelligence purposes, of PIs [principal investigators] prior to awarding a grant to their institution?” Grassley asked Tabak.

“No, we do not,” Tabak replied, before adding, “and they are employees of their home institution.”

That answer didn’t sit well with Grassley. He returned to the topic later in the hearing when questioning Joe Gray, a biomedical engineer at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland—only to be rebuffed again.

“Do you believe there should be more robust vetting procedures?” Grassley asked Gray, who had previously noted he had once held a top-level security clearance while working at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, one of three nuclear weapons labs run by the Department of Energy. Instead of agreeing with the chairman, Gray gave a full-throated defense of the value of international collaboration.

“I acknowledge there have been misuses of intellectual property and data and there needs to be vigorous enforcement of laws that punish countries and individuals who have committed such violations,” Gray replied. “But the issue of imposing additional vetting is a difficult one. The process of doing this vetting stigmatizes the entire community that is being vetted and decreases their enthusiasm for coming to the United States to advance our science. I’m worried that it will diminish our own ability to innovate.”

“The United States represents only 5% of the world’s population,” Gray continued, “and we draw the best minds from all of the world. So, what we don’t want to do is diminish our brain gain by making it unattractive for others to come here and help us solve major societal problems and form the companies that are driving the U.S. economy.”

“I recognize the sincerity of your answer,” Grassley replied. “But I still believe there needs to be more vetting.”

After the hearing, Grassley told ScienceInsider that he didn’t have a specific proposal in mind. “When I said more vetting, it was based on my impression of the problems we are facing,” Grassley explained. “Maybe it’s not a matter of more laws or more regulations. Maybe it’s a case of better administration of those things.”

“Right under our noses”

Gray was the sole nongovernmental witness at the hearing, testifying alone after a break in the hearing so committee members could cast a series of votes on the Senate floor. In the first part of the hearing, Tabak was part of a panel that included the head of national security at HHS, the chief investigator for HHS’s Office of Inspector General, and the head of the Department of Homeland Security unit that vets foreigners seeking to study and carry out research in the United States. They were much more amenable to Grassley’s views on the need to keep a close eye on those bent on doing harm to the country.

So, too, were his fellow Republicans on the finance committee. Senator John Cornyn (RTX) chastised U.S. researchers for failing to heed the warnings of Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray that China has perfected the use of “nontraditional collectors” to obtain U.S. technology illegally.

“The level of naïvety within the academic sector creates its own issues,” said Cornyn, adding that he plans to introduce a bill next week that would require the executive branch to develop a plan to “enhance cybersecurity protocols and protect federally funded research from foreign interference and espionage.” He challenged U.S. research universities to “up their game,” saying that he would be reluctant to support any research spending bill until institutions could demonstrate that the federally funded research on their campuses “was not being stolen right under our noses.”

Wyden seemed to place much more faith in the ability of research universities to protect intellectual property, saying U.S. leadership in science is at stake. “It goes without saying that individuals and foreign governments are always going to want to chip away at our lead,” he began. “Academic institutions must understand and respond to those concerns. But let’s be careful not to overreach and create barriers that turn away bright students or cut off lines of communication with scientists from other countries. That would do a lot more harm than good.”

The real harm, he argued, was in the policies of the current administration. “The quickest way to turn out the lights of health research labs across America would be to enact the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts to NIH,” he said. “And just a few months ago, the president signed an executive order threatening to cut off research funding for universities over a baseless panic about free speech on campus.”

“So, when you take the broader view of threats to research in America,” Wyden said, “it’s clear the biggest danger comes from within.”