The FBI is continuing an investigation into “utterly unacceptable” foreign theft of and influence on research by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), said NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD.

“We are deeply concerned about the evidence, which has been growing over the course of more than a year, that there are egregious instances where our funding of grants in this country is being taken advantage of by individuals who are not following the appropriate rules,” Collins said in recent testimony to Congress. “This is utterly unacceptable. We have had multiple opportunities to interact with the FBI, which has been investigating this vigorously.”

Collins sent a letter1 last year to thousands of research institutions to be wary of research maleficence in three critical areas:

  • Diversion of intellectual property in grant applications or from NIH biomedical research to other countries;
  • Release of confidential information on grant applications by NIH peer reviewers to foreign entities;
  • Failure by researchers at NIH-funded institutions to disclose resources from foreign governments.

Collins updated the situation in testimony at an April 11, 2019, hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies.

“We have uncovered what has led to 55 investigations ongoing of [researchers] who we believe may be double-dipping, receiving government money without disclosing it,” he said. “Or, in some cases, diverting property they may be working [on] to China. … While China has been mentioned a lot, this is not only China.”

In addition, and “maybe most egregiously of all,” are those contributing to the theft by distributing research ideas when they are supposed to be performing peer review, he said. Collins told the committee that the message to NIH research institutions is “if they’re not aware of what their own faculty are doing in terms of these kind of relationships, they need to begin to find out.”

After initially some surprise and “denial,” institutions are beginning to take action, he said.

“There are instances where faculty have been fired, many of them returning to their previous foreign [countries],” Collins said. “Actions are being taken, and you’ll see more evidence of that in the press.”

Indeed, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston reportedly took action against some faculty members, but in a statement, it did not provide specifics.

“The institution has responded to requests from the NIH regarding a variety of threats, including data security and intellectual property loss,” according to the statement.2 “It’s important to note that no patient information was accessed or shared.”

The release included a statement by Peter Pisters, MD, president of MD Anderson, expressing the institution’s commitment “to the highest levels of scientific integrity, public accountability, and social responsibility in the conduct of science.”

Steps have been taken to safeguard the institution, including a new emphasis on risk management, increased awareness and education on data security, and strengthening of conflict of interest policies, MD Anderson reported.

“We have an obligation to do all we can to protect our intellectual property and all state and federal resources entrusted to us,” Pisters said.

REFERENCE

  1. Collins, F. NIH Foreign Influence Letter to Grantees. Aug. 20, 2018. Available at: https://bit.ly/2WDzrGV.
  2. MD Anderson addresses national threat of foreign influence. April 19, 2019. Available at: https://bit.ly/2Wx2Cqe.