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The National Institutes of Health (main campus shown here) can take months to vet an allegation of undisclosed foreign ties.

National Institutes of Health

‘Has it peaked? I don’t know.’ NIH official details foreign influence probe

Four years after the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began to investigate grantees who it believed had failed to disclose their ties to foreign governments, officials still don’t know the full extent of the problem.

“We’ve learned of 150 cases in the past 12 months,” says the head of NIH’s extramural research program, Michael Lauer, who oversees an ongoing probe that has swept up 399 scientists since NIH received the first allegation in June 2016. “But has it peaked, and will we have the same number of new cases over the next 12 months? I just don’t know.”

On 12 June, Lauer offered the fullest analysis to date of the pool of scientists NIH has been investigating and the nature of their offenses. But the data left many questions unanswered. Last week, Lauer fleshed out that analysis during an interview with ScienceInsider, offering new details on the scope of NIH’s investigation and how it fits into the larger debate now roiling Congress over how to prevent other countries from acquiring federally funded research in ways that threaten U.S. economic and national security.

Since July 2018, Lauer says, NIH has sent letters to 87 institutions raising questions about the behavior of 189 scientists. That group is a subset of the 399 grantees who have so far come to NIH’s attention, Lauer explained. Of those 399 scientists, he says, NIH determined that 251 warranted further scrutiny. NIH has since exonerated 76 scientists; 72 cases are still pending.

Lost jobs

Within the group of 189, 54 have subsequently lost their jobs. (NIH has declined to make their names public, although media reports have described and identified roughly two dozen scientists who appear to fall into that category.)

Asked why they were fired or dismissed, Lauer says the decisions were made by their institutions, not by NIH. “We do not render an opinion on HR [human resources] matters,” he says.

He notes that 70 of the 189 scientists were found to have violated rules at their institution, most notably a ban on receiving outside support for their research without prior approval from their employer. (In 93% of the 189 cases, the funding came from China, and the vast majority of the scientists under scrutiny are Asian men in their 50s.)

Lauer emphasized that NIH is examining only a narrow slice of the broader issue of inappropriate or illegal activity involving foreign sources of funding. “We focus on grant noncompliance,” he says, referring to a long-standing NIH policy that grantees must disclose material support for their research from any outside source.

The data Lauer presented are in line with that explanation. Of the 189 scientists flagged in its letters to institutions, 133 of them (70%) failed to disclose a grant from a foreign entity, and 102 failed to disclose their participation in a foreign talent recruitment program, such as China’s Thousand Talents Program.

Michael Lauer oversees the National Institute of Health’s review.

National Institutes of Health

Cases involving the alleged theft of intellectual property or economic espionage, he says, are referred to either the inspector general for NIH’s parent body, the Department of Health and Human Services, or to the Department of Justice (DOJ). DOJ’s China Initiative, launched in November 2018, has led to the arrests of several scientists, including biochemist Charles Lieber of Harvard University.

Although the U.S. government asserts that many of them have helped the Chinese government illegally acquire U.S. technology, they are typically charged with other offenses, such as lying to the Federal Bureau of Investiation (FBI). Lauer’s data show a relative handful of the 189 scientists tagged appeared to be active in commercializing their research: Only 17 had hidden their involvement with a foreign company, for example, and seven had failed to tell NIH about a foreign patent.

Few mistakes claimed

Investigating alleged nondisclosure by an NIH grantee is a very labor-intensive process that can take “as long as several months,” Lauer says. It encompasses looking for mentions of foreign ties and grants in published papers, press releases, and other public descriptions of their research activities. Although NIH’s own sleuthing accounts for the majority of the workload, FBI did the initial legwork in some 30% of the 399 cases, according to Lauer’s data. In 11% of the cases, the scientist’s own institution contacted NIH with concerns.

Lauer says NIH is rarely wrong once it decides an NIH-funded scientist is likely to have violated its policies on disclosure. The data he presented on 12 June show 71% of the 87 institutions that received letters “acknowledged noncompliance.” He says there are additional cases in which an institution took action without admitting liability. He cited, for example, a December 2019 settlement between DOJ and the Van Andel Research Institute, in which the institute agreed to repay NIH $5.5 million in a case involving two scientists that had received funding from the Chinese government.

“They claimed that because the [Chinese] research did not overlap with what we were funding, they had no obligation to report it to us,” Lauer says. “But that is false,” he asserts.

“Of course, an institution has the right to disagree with us,” Lauer says. But he estimates that there are “fewer than 10 cases” in which institutions persuaded NIH that it had erred in claiming a grant recipient had violated the agency’s policy on disclosure.