Washington Update

Senate Hearing Discusses Threat of Foreign Influence on NIH-funded Research

By: Edna Chiang
Thursday, June 20, 2019

Concerns about foreign influence on taxpayer-funded research have intensified over the past year. The full Senate Committee on Finance met June 5 to discuss the dangers and potential solutions in a session titled, “Foreign Threats to Taxpayer-Funded Research: Oversight Opportunities and Policy Solutions.”

In his opening statement, Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) outlined four areas of concern: failure of researchers to properly disclose financial contributions from foreign countries; espionage by foreign researcher spies who steal American intellectual property to benefit their home countries; inadequate  federal government and university vetting of researchers who work on taxpayer-funded projects; and a lack of integrity among some peer reviewers who share confidential grant information with foreign countries or try to sway funding decisions.

Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR) agreed that steps must be taken to protect federally funded research but cautioned the Committee “not to overreach with barriers that turn away bright students or cut off lines of communication with scientists from other countries that can end up doing more harm than good.” He also encouraged the Committee to look at broader threats to the national scientific enterprise. “It’s clear that we have substantial dangers from within and too often they stem from administrations taking anti-science positions,” Sen. Wyden said.

The first witness panel was comprised of four government employees: Lawrence Tabak, DDS, PhD, Principal Deputy Directory of the National Institutes of Health (NIH); Captain Michael Schmoyer, PhD, Assistant Deputy Secretary for National Security and Director of the Office of National Security in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS); Leslie Hollie, Chief of Investigative Operations at the HHS Office of Inspector General; and Louis Rodi, Deputy Assistant Director at the Department of Homeland Security.

Dr. Tabak testified that, as of May 2019, NIH has contacted 61 awardee institutions with concerns about improper disclosure of foreign affiliations or attempts to influence the grant review process. NIH has also made 16 referrals to the Office of Inspector General to investigate grant fraud allegations. Although the numbers may seem small, Dr. Tabak emphasized the gravity of this problem.

When asked to assess the level of threat posed by foreign influence and provide names and numbers of countries of concern, most witnesses remained tight-lipped. Mr. Rodi did say that China, Iran, and Russia are the top countries of concern, but not the only ones.

A common theme emerged from testimony: it is vital that federal departments and agencies collaborate to identify individuals of concern and educate institutions about how to monitor and respond. Witnesses and senators acknowledged the importance of research collaboration, but expressed concern that such an open culture makes the U.S. vulnerable to exploitation by adversaries.

To respond to these concerns, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) announced he would soon introduce the Secure Our Research Act to “establish an interagency working group to develop an agency-wide compliance framework to enhance cybersecurity protocols and protect federally-funded research from foreign interference, espionage, and exfiltration.”

In the second panel, Joe W. Gray, PhD, Professor at Oregon Health & Science University, was the sole witness. Dr. Gray shared his experience as a scientist who has worked in both high-security institutions, such as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, as well as public universities. He agreed with the Committee on the importance of protecting intellectual property but was concerned about the negative impact of restrictions. “The cost and money, time, and efficiency of research in that controlled environment [at Livermore] was extraordinarily high,” he said.

Dr. Gray warned that additional regulations on interactions with foreign-born scientists would stigmatize these communities, stymie collaboration, diminish the nation’s “brain gain,” and stifle innovation. Instead, he suggested the government use existing legal and political means to protect the nation’s intellectual property and “accelerate its transfer to the private sector.” Dr. Gray also expressed the need for clear disclosure guidelines because the rules have regularly changed, leaving academics unclear about their disclosure obligations.

“I think it’s very important to not let the transgressions of a few, which are real, inhibit the successes of the many,” said Dr. Gray.

The public hearing was followed by a classified briefing later that afternoon. A video of the hearing and statement copies can be found here.