‘This Is Real Theft’
NIH Investigates Foreign Influence at U.S. Grantee Institutions
NIH has identified more than 100 instances of troubling foreign influence on extramural research, including withholding information about funding sources and conflicts of interests and violating the confidentiality of peer review, said Dr. Michael Lauer, NIH deputy director for extramural research.
“These all represent forms of theft,” said Lauer during an inter-institute bioethics interest group seminar on Sept. 9 in Bldg. 45.
NIH has investigated at least 180 scientists at more than 65 institutions for violating policies requiring grantees to report their foreign ties. The agency has referred 21 cases to the HHS Office of the Inspector General for debarment to prevent scientists from applying for grants.
Most—but not all—are ethnic Chinese scientists conducting preclinical research in many areas, he said. Nearly every scientist under investigation is well-funded and established. They are not postdoctoral fellows or students.
“This is not xenophobic racism, this is not targeting and this is not stigma. This is real theft,” Lauer said.
The investigation has focused on China’s Thousand Talents Plan (TTP). Established in 2008 by the central government of China, the program recruits top scientists—most ethnically Chinese who are living overseas, under 55 years of age, or foreign scientists under 65—to work at Chinese universities. To apply for TTP funding, an applicant who works outside China must have employment or a firm employment offer from a Chinese university.
If an applicant receives funding through the plan, he or she receives a formal contract with terms of employment. The size of the employment contracts ranges from a few hundred thousand dollars to millions of dollars per year. Awardees typically get laboratory space and equipment, staff, a signing bonus and other benefits, Lauer said. In return, scientists are expected to produce “deliverables” for China, including publications and patents.
“In many cases, people who get these awards don’t tell their American employer they got the award,” Lauer said. For scientists working for the U.S. government, this arrangement is illegal; for scientists working at universities, it may be a violation of the institution’s conflict of interest policy, depending on the strengths of university policies.
Many academic institutions have strict policies against outside activities without obtaining prior approval, he noted. International collaborations between scientists are acceptable and often encouraged. But the relationship must be vetted and disclosed prior to entering an agreement with a foreign entity.
Lauer has also seen instances where NIH-funded researchers spend most of their time on their China-based work. Essentially, researchers were working for competing employers on company time. There were scientists who were absent for as much as 150 days from their U.S. labs.
If NIH knows that a researcher getting NIH money also receives an employment contract from a foreign institution, the agency might not support the researcher (or would limit the amount of support), given that “our funding success rates are only 20 percent.” Instead, NIH would devote its resources elsewhere.
In one contract, Lauer found that a grantee scientist was expected to issue 2-3 Chinese patents. In another, a grantee researcher was required to publish scientific articles in top scientific journals representing his foreign institution. Lauer has seen instances where Chinese researchers who receive TTP funding recruit other Chinese researchers at their American universities.
Lauer said that some grantees’ Chinese employment contracts included intellectual property clauses that American institutions would likely find unacceptable. But in nearly all cases, American institutions were not given the opportunity to review the foreign employment contracts prior to signing.
Other contracts explicitly state that the goal is “to move the lab back to China,” Lauer said.
The intelligence community refers to these scientists as “non-traditional” collectors, he explained. By having stealth employment at a Chinese university while maintaining a lab in an American university, they can pass along information about what’s happening in the American lab.
“Institutions are waking up and now have a better idea of what’s going on,” said Lauer.
NIH has also uncovered instances where researchers don’t report their ownership stakes in foreign companies, Lauer said. There have even been cases where Chinese companies owned Chinese patents that appeared to leverage NIH-funded research. Again, these patents were never disclosed to American institutions.
One researcher at the University of California, San Diego, founded a pharmaceutical company with his wife in China. He never disclosed his ownership stake in the company to his American university or to NIH.
NIH has also found that scientists have violated the confidentiality of the peer-review process. Confidentiality allows for the open exchange of scientific opinions and evaluations and protects proprietary information.
In one instance, a peer reviewer for NIH who also received funding from the TTP sent unfunded R01 applications by email to scientists in China, all the while cautioning them that the applications should be considered confidential.
“When you write a grant, you expect the only people who are going to see that grant application are the reviewers and the NIH staff who have the business of looking at it. You certainly have no anticipation that your grant is going to get emailed off to other scientists in foreign countries so they can use it to their advantage,” Lauer said.
If NIH finds evidence that a reviewer has shared confidential information, the agency can inform the institution leaders where a reviewer works, terminate his or her service on peer review or refer the reviewer to the Office of Inspector General for potential prosecution.
“We are very serious about this,” warned Lauer. “Serving on a peer review committee is a privilege. If you get applications to look at, you are the only one who is supposed to see them.”
NIH is working closely with several federal agencies, including the Department of Justice, the FBI, Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, and non-federal associations to conduct investigations into foreign influence on extramural research.
“This is not just an NIH effort,” Lauer concluded.