Taxpayer-funded research projects failed to check whether scientists were taking money from China: IG

Federal internal investigators have uncovered alarming failures by universities to require scientists conducting taxpayer-funded research to disclose when they also pocket money from China and other foreign countries.

The Department of Health and Human Services inspector general said failure to follow disclosure rules exposes critical biomedical research to theft by China.

Joanna Bisgaier, deputy regional inspector general who worked on the report, said the widespread disregard for government rules was unforeseen and she was unsure whether it was due to ignorance, recklessness or malice by the beneficiaries.

“We did not expect a high enough percentage of recipients who did not comply with federal requirements regarding the disclosure of foreign financial interests and support,” Ms. Bisgaier said in an interview.

More than two-thirds of National Institutes of Health grant recipients reviewed by the inspector general — 69% — did not require their researchers and scientists to disclose at least one type of foreign financial interest or support, as required by HHS and National Institutes of Hearth rules, according to the IG report released this month.

The Office of the Inspector General interviewed 617 grantees from October 2020 to January 2021 whose research spanned the full range of what the NIH funds, including neuroscience, cardiovascular science, and infectious disease research. The inspector general’s office declined to identify the grant recipients, except to say they worked at universities and other institutions and that the NIH awarded $31 billion to recipients during the fiscal year. 2020.

As the inspector general’s office dug, it uncovered potential for conflicts of interest that could compromise the integrity of NIH’s work, Bisgaier said. For example, 277 institutions or 45% of grantees surveyed did not require their researchers and scientists to disclose all of their shares or stakes in unlisted entities.

If a scientist had a stake in a foreign group researching the same thing the US government was paying them to study, the government is expected to know the full extent of the foreign business relationship. Keeping it hidden, Ms. Bisgaier said, creates the risk of intellectual property theft by foreign entities and governments.

The inspector general’s office hasn’t traced the scene behind the undisclosed foreign conflicts of interest, but the report makes it clear that China is the top threat to NIH research and cites issues from recent years.

“For example, a recipient’s NIH-funded researchers failed to disclose their Chinese government research grants and the recipient failed to adequately investigate the information it had regarding the relationships and affiliations of the recipients. researchers, which resulted in the recipient paying $6.6 million in False Claims Act settlements.” says the report. “In another example, [a researcher] was found guilty of making false statements to the NIH regarding the funding he received from China’s Thousand Talents Plan, a government-run program aimed at attracting scientists to foster scientific development, economic prosperity and security National of China.

Last year, the NIH told Congress that more than 500 federally funded scientists were being investigated for being compromised by China and other foreign powers.

Other federal agencies also face the threat that their outside researchers will be compromised by foreign funds. This has been a problem at the CIA and the Department of Defense, forcing both to create new programs to avoid foreign influence.

The NIH said it agreed with the recommendations in the inspector general’s report.

In a response to the report, the agency told the inspector general that it would make changes based on the inspector general’s recommendations. For example, NIH Acting Senior Deputy Director Tara A. Schwetz has pledged to post new notices, update web pages, and provide better training for NIH grant recipients.

“Beginning in fiscal year 2022, NIH will consider modifying reporting mechanisms to require recipients to disclose whether the investigator’s material financial interests and other supporters involve foreign entities,” Ms. Schwetz wrote. in a letter included in the Inspector General’s report. “The above-referenced guide notice will also include a [financial conflict of interest] reminder that investigators are required to disclose all foreign financial interests.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Joanna Bisgaier’s name.

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