On Tuesday, June 23, Dr. Kelvin Drogemeier, the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), gave a presentation to the Federal Demonstration Partnership (FDP) on “Enhancing the Security and Integrity of America’s Research Enterprise.” Dr. Drogemeier articulated five “key takeaway” messages:
- The integrity of our research enterprise rests upon core principles and values, including transparency, honesty, accountability, objectivity, respect, freedom of inquiry, reciprocity, and merit-based competition;
- Principled international collaboration and foreign contributions are critical to our success;
- Some individuals and foreign governments violate core principles of integrity and pose risks to research security;
- Hidden diversions of intellectual property weaken our innovation base and threaten our security and economic competitiveness; and
- The U.S. government is taking deliberate steps to address risks to research integrity and security while maintaining an open and collaborative enterprise.
I’d like to take this opportunity to summarize Dr. Drogemeier’s presentation and how it fits within the context of NIH extramural research.
Dr. Drogemeier reviewed a number of case examples of scientists who engaged in unethical behaviors in the course of their undisclosed work for foreign institutions or governments. One scientist whose work was funded by NIH signed a full-time employment contract through the Chinese “Thousand Talents Program.” He had not informed his American employer, who thought he was working full-time here in the United States and represented that belief on grant documents submitted to the NIH. The Talents contract stipulated that one of his job objectives was for “the laboratory in the United States [to be] gradually moved back to China.” In this case an American scientist whose work had been supported by U.S. taxpayers became party to an undisclosed contract with a foreign government. The foreign institution dictated that the U.S. laboratory be moved to China. The U.S. institution was unaware of this commitment.
Over the past few years, we have learned much about the “Thousand Talents Program” and other problematic foreign talent recruitment programs. Reports about these programs have been issued by the U.S. Senate (a bipartisan report of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations), by the JASON group (a report commissioned by the National Science Foundation), and by scholars (e.g. a report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies). These programs’ interactions with American scientists do not reflect typical recruitments – that is a scientist openly leaves one institution to work for a different institution. Instead, in secret or without proper disclosure, scientists continue to work for American institutions while at the same time working in “shadow laboratories” elsewhere. Without the knowledge or approval or their American employers, they have signed contracts or engaged in relationships that pose numerous problems:
- undisclosed foreign employment,
- undisclosed obligations to generate foreign patents that may be related to NIH-funded work,
- undisclosed preferential treatment in American laboratories for certain students or visiting scientists,
- undisclosed research support – often for similar if not identical research being supported by the NIH,
- undisclosed compensation deposited into secret foreign bank accounts,
- undisclosed obligations to assign credit to foreign institutions for work done largely in the United States,
- undisclosed obligations to keep foreign arrangements and scientific work secret,
- undisclosed obligations to transfer propriety information and technologies to foreign institutions,
- stringent restrictions on termination of contract,
- undisclosed significant financial conflicts of interest, and
- egregious violations of peer review confidentiality rules.
How widespread are these behaviors? We don’t know. The absolute number of scientists appears to be small compared to the total universe of scientists supported through NIH funding to their institutions. Nonetheless, the data suggest widespread and systemic activity across geographic location and scientific disciplines. The incidents we have seen – so far involving 87 institutions with confirmed violations of NIH rules by over 150 scientists – are not unique to any one background, ethnicity, or nationality. A few incidents involving NIH funding have become public. These include resignations or terminations from prominent institutions (e.g. MD Anderson Cancer Center, Moffitt Cancer Center, and the University of California at San Diego); a guilty plea for filing false tax returns; and a false-claims settlement involving failure to disclose foreign grant support. The National Science Foundation (NSF) Inspector General has reported a 20% increase in case load. One NSF-supported scientist was convicted of grant fraud after he secured U.S. funding for research that was already supported by the Chinese government.
We are grateful to the many experts we have worked with in our efforts to learn more about and to address integrity breaches linked to foreign interference. In late 2018, a Working Group of the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) issued, in short order, a thoughtful report with recommendations that we continue to implement. Since then, the OSTP, through its Joint Committee on Research Environments (JCORE), has taken a key leadership role in developing a whole-of-government response to problems that clearly are not limited to biomedical science. Alongside OSTP, our partners include federal government colleagues in the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), in the Department of Justice, in the Department of State, in law enforcement agencies, and in other federal funding agencies. We note the work led by professional societies, including but not limited to efforts by the American Association of Universities (AAU) and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) to gather and disseminate best practices. And we are extraordinarily grateful to dozens of institutional leaders (including Presidents, Deans, Vice-Presidents for Research, and Compliance and Integrity Officers) for their work as they have tried to learn about the possible problems occurring within their institutions.
Besides our interactions with individual institutions, our outreach has included Dr. Francis Collins’ 2018 statement and letter; NIH presentations (including updates to the ACD in December 2019 and June 2020); NIH Guide Notice clarifications on conflict of interest, other support, and foreign components; and numerous presentations to and meetings with stakeholders all over the United States. After Dr. Drogemeier’s FDP presentation, OSTP released a slide deck describing the nature of the problem and the government’s interest to balance openness with security.
We stress that our concerns are with foreign interference that lead to serious noncompliance and ethical breaches. The serious cases we have seen are not linked to problems with, using Dr. Drogemeier’s words, “principled international collaborations.” Principled collaborations do not entail secret employment contracts, undisclosed (and sometimes duplicative) foreign grants, undisclosed conflicts of interest or commitment, failure to submit truthful tax returns, secret foreign bank accounts, or peer review breaches. Those behaviors do not make for collaborations that reflect core values of integrity, transparency, reciprocity, accountability, objectivity, and fair merit-based competition. But those behaviors often do constitute serious grants non-compliance that require our attention as responsible partners and stewards of limited Federal research funds.
It is critical to keep in mind that U.S. scientists routinely collaborate productively with investigators in foreign countries. We must rely on productive research collaborations with foreign entities. Individuals violating laws and policies represent a small proportion of scientists working in and with U.S. institutions. We must not reject brilliant minds working honestly and collaboratively to provide hope and healing.
How can you help? We encourage you to read and discuss with your colleagues and institutional leaders the thoughtful recommendations and perspectives conveyed in ACD Working Group Report, the bipartisan Senate Report, the JASON Report, and the AAU-APLU Report. We note the centrality of transparency. One university web site stated it well: “While most international collaborations are perfectly acceptable and encouraged, we urge researchers to err on the side of transparency … It protects everyone’s interests – the Federal government, [our university], individual researchers, and their international collaborators – to have international relationships disclosed and vetted to determine if there are any potential conflicts of commitment, duplications of research, and/or diversion of intellectual property in the performance of federally funded research.”
In this spirit, we look forward to continuing to work with you to strengthen values underpinning research integrity and protecting the Nation’s biomedical innovations.
More information can be found on our new webpage, Protecting U.S. Biomedical Intellectual Innovation.