In the News: Increased Scrutiny of Foreign Influence in Research

Over the past few months, you’ve probably heard a lot about foreign influence in research, as two prominent research institutions dismissed scientists for failing to report foreign ties. Since August 2018, the National Health Institute (NIH) has been investigating scientists it believes to have violated NIH rules requiring full disclosure of all sources of research funding. As the NIH continues investigating and enforcing disclosure regulations, research institutions face growing pressure to respond.

In this blog post, we look at the impact of increased scrutiny of foreign influence in research, including steps research administration offices can take to ensure compliance with NIH guidelines.

What the NIH is investigating

In August 2018, the NIH sent a letter to U.S. research institutions raising concerns about foreign entities interfering with the funding, research, and peer review of NIH-funded projects.

In their initial announcement, the NIH addressed three areas of concern:

  • That researchers were not disclosing “substantial resources” from foreign governments and other organizations

  • That intellectual property produced by NIH-sponsored biomedical research was being diverted to foreign entities

  • That peer reviewers were sharing confidential information or otherwise attempting to influence funding decisions

At the time of the statement, the NIH was investigating about a half dozen specific research institutions based on suspicions that researchers with federal grants failed to disclose financial contributions from foreign governments. Since then, NIH has sent letters to more than 60 U.S. institutions about individual scientists it believes have broken research funding disclosure rules, and government-led investigations have led to the dismissal of at least five scientists.

Consequences for scientists and research institutions

There have been two highly publicized cases of research institutions dismissing scientists as a result of NIH investigations:  

  1. In April, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center dismissed three scientists who violated NIH rules regarding peer review confidentiality.

  2. In May, Emory University in Atlanta severed ties with two Chinese-American researchers. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the researchers failed to disclose money they were taking from Chinese sources and preexisting relationships with research institutions and universities in China.

Just this week, Science Magazine reported that the NIH probe of foreign ties has led to several additional firings, as well as refunds from institutions, that have not been made public. In an interview with Science, Michael Lauer, head of NIH’s extramural research program, says that some scientists may face debarment—be banned from receiving federal funds—as a result of NIH findings.

Concerns over racial profiling

The majority of scientists under investigation by the NIH are ethnically Chinese, and researchers and institutions have brought up concerns that scientists of Chinese descent are being unfairly targetted by federal investigations. As reported by Nature earlier this month, “some fear the rising tensions could lead to an exodus of researchers with Chinese backgrounds from U.S. institutions.”

The NIH maintains that, while China is a major focus of its investigations, it is evaluating “objective behaviors” and not singling out researchers of a particular race. In their most recent statement, released this month, NIH director Francis S. Collins acknowledges “the potential for overreaction to this situation,” noting, “foreign nationals are a critical and highly valued part of the American biomedical research workforce, and the potential for stigmatization and racial profiling of innocent and hard-working individuals must be scrupulously avoided.”

How research administration offices can help

As NIH efforts to enforce rules requiring its grantees to report foreign ties grow, research institutions struggle to balance legitimate concerns with maintaining the collaborative and free exchange of ideas and research that benefits scientific progress. Many research institutions are focusing on education, providing resources for investigators and offering extra guidance about institutional policies and NIH guidelines.

Additional steps research institutions can take include:

  • Leadership issuing official statements about the impact and oversight of foreign influence in research

  • COI departments including questions about joint appointments, affiliations, employment, and paid or unpaid agreements with non-U.S. entities/individuals to annual COI disclosure form; ensuring investigators have the resources they need to disclose fully

  • Grants/Sponsored Programs adding questions specific to international collaborations and foreign influence at time of proposal submission to internal forms

  • Maintaining complete and accurate records of peer review processes. Bad Rabbit’s in-system collaborative review tool reduces compliance and security concerns.

Across departments, research institutions can take NIH investigations seriously while supporting faculty and staff who, by and large, have good intentions and are committed to conducting ethical research. As the NIH pointed out in their August 2018 letter, “The scientists whose work NIH is proud to help support come from all over this country and the world, bringing rich, diverse perspectives and backgrounds to the biomedical research enterprise.”