Learn about U.S. government concerns related to inappropriate interference by foreign governments and institutions over federally funded research. Read about real case studies.
While the overwhelming majority of researchers participating on NIH grants, whether U.S. or foreign-born, are honest, hard-working contributors to the advancement of knowledge that benefits us all, the U.S. government has ongoing concerns about inappropriate interference by foreign governments over federally funded research. In August 2018, the NIH Director issued a statement about incidents that violate core principles and threaten the integrity and academic competitiveness of U.S. biomedical research and innovation.
Types of Problems
Since NIH started working in 2016 on undue foreign interference in NIH-funded research, we have become aware of three types of problems:
- Undisclosed sources of foreign research support which has led to NIH making ill-informed funding decisions. These sources of support include undisclosed foreign employment, undisclosed foreign talent recruitment awards, and undisclosed foreign research grants. We have seen cases in which scientists' misrepresentations led to NIH funding duplicative projects or projects compromised by conflicts of commitment. Here is one example .
- Undisclosed conflicts of interest which has led to NIH overseeing awards that were inadequately managed for prevention of bias. In the example referenced above, the scientist had undisclosed positions and equity interest in foreign companies that should have been subject to a conflict-of-interest plan. Had NIH been aware, NIH would have most certainly not funded the grants, or would have taken other actions to protect the grant.
- Violations of peer review integrity rules. For example, one scientist sent confidential NIH grant applications to scientists in China , even though he had signed an attestation that he would not share any peer review materials with anyone
In some cases, we refer allegations to OIG for further investigation. Criminal or civil complaints have led to multiple convictions false claims settlements.
The scenarios below are based on real cases. Given the hundreds of cases and repetitive patterns we have seen, the scenarios below cannot be linked to any one individual.
An NIH-funded scientist is employed by both
- an American medical school on a 12-month schedule, and
- a foreign university on a 6-month contract.
- The American medical school is unaware of the 6-month foreign contract.
- The foreign university contract includes >$500,000 per year of funding support, along with provision of laboratory space, equipment, and trained staff. There is a personal signing bonus of $150,000, a salary of >$100,000 per year, a housing allowing of $75,000, and covered travel.
- The scientist has told the American medical school that he is giving a few lectures at the foreign university, but nothing more. On his internal disclosure documents, he checks “No” when asked about outside research activities and outside employment.
- The scientist has a fully functioning lab in the foreign university.
- After receiving support for a project proposal on an NIH grant award, the scientist arranges for the same proposal to be translated into a foreign language and submitted to a foreign government funding agency through his foreign university employer.
- The foreign funding agency issues the award to the scientist through the foreign university.
- Six months later the scientist is asked on a standard NIH progress report, “Has there been any change in other research support for your individual research endeavors?” He answers, “No, NOTHING TO REPORT” - a false statement.
- He translates the NIH progress report into a foreign language and submits it to the foreign funding agency as evidence of progress in his foreign university laboratory.
When the American medical school learned of these previously undisclosed activities, it`
- took an employment action, and
- refunded the NIH >$1 million for duplicative funding.
- An NIH-funded scientist is employed by an American medical school on a 12-month schedule.
- He owns majority equity interest in a foreign company valued at $20 million. The company is receiving patents and selling products derived from his American NIH-funded research.
- The American medical school is unaware of the scientist's equity interest in the foreign company.
- On annual internal disclosure form, he checks “No” when asked about significant financial interests - a false statement.
- On NIH grants, his institution declares that there are no financial conflicts of interest to disclose or manage.
- When the American medical school learned of these previously undisclosed financial interests, it took an employment action.
An NIH-funded scientist is employed by
- An American medical school on a 12-month schedule
- A foreign university on a full-time “Talents” contract
- The American medical school had a long-standing rule that any outside employment or outside research support must be pre-approved by a high-level institutional official.
- The Talents award contract include $1,000,000 start-up funds followed by $250,000 of research funds per year, along with laboratory space, equipment, and trained staff. There is a personal signing bonus of $150,000, a salary of >$100,000 per year, a housing allowing of $75,000, and covered travel.
- The Talents award contract requires the scientist to apply for additional funds from a foreign science funding agency through his foreign employer. The scientist successfully applies for several grants, stating that he will commit 9 calendar months per year to work on those foreign grants. He is already committed for 6 months on NIH grants.
- The scientist acknowledges support from the foreign grants on his publications, in which he identifies the foreign university as his primary affiliation.
- The American medical school is unaware of the full-time foreign Talents contract and the foreign grants.
- NIH learns of the Talents awards and asks the American medical school for information to assess possible scientific, budgetary, commitment overlap, and/or financial conflict of interest.
- The American medical school asks the scientist about these activities, and he categorically denies any foreign employment or grant support. He says that the Talents award is “just an honor, nothing more.” He says that any foreign grants were written by others without his permission.
The American medical school discovers
- Signed Talents application
- Talents shortlisting notification
- Signed Talents contract - which includes financial support for research
- Signed foreign university contract
- o Funded foreign grants, along with correspondence indicating that the scientist played an active role in writing the proposals
- When confronted, the scientist continued to deny any foreign activities other than the “honor.”
- The American medical school took an employment action.
NIH-funded scientist is employed by both
- An American medical school on a 12-month schedule, and
- A foreign university on a full-time contract
- His American medical school is unaware of the full-time foreign contract.
- Through his foreign affiliation, the scientist has been supported on 5 foreign grants over the past 7 years; at least 2 foreign grant awards are active. None of the foreign grants have been mentioned in any NIH grant document.
- The scientist cites the foreign grants as sources of support in multiple publications.
- NIH contacts the American medical school, asking about the undisclosed foreign grants.
- The American Medical School states that the scientist denies receiving any foreign funds.
- When the NIH pushes back, the American Medical School locates several foreign grant applications which clearly identify the scientist as the PI. Furthermore, foreign web sites, along with publications, identify the foreign grants as linked to the PI.
- The scientist now claims that the apparent link between him and the foreign grants is because he allowed his name to be used as PI in order to help a former student now based in the foreign country. The scientist claims he never even read the grant (the grant in which he is designated as PI).
- Upon further investigation, the American Medical School determines that the PI in fact played a major role in writing the grant and in overseeing the work supported by the grant at the foreign university. The American Medical School found that he spent an inordinate amount of time away from campus, far more than allowed under outside activity rules.
The American medical school
- Took employment actions
- o Refunded the NIH for time spent charging for salary when the scientist was based at his foreign employer