The head of the U.S. National Institutes of Health told lawmakers on Capitol Hill the agency was doing everything in its power to deal with two major threats to the American biomedical enterprise: the misuse or theft of taxpayer-funded data and sexual harassment in the scientific community.
NIH Director Francis Collins revealed there are now 55 research institutions where foreign scientists, entities or governments may have attempted to steal, misuse or wrongly influence biomedical research funded by U.S. taxpayers.
At an April 11 hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, Collins acknowledged the NIH has been actively interacting with the FBI in the ongoing investigations of the research institutions, some of which he said were considered classified.
"Not every one of the investigations is going to reveal something bad happened, but some of them will," Collins told the senators, describing the FBI's work as vigorous.
The NIH chief had initially revealed the investigations at an August 2018 Capitol Hill hearing, where he said he had personally written letters to senior representatives at more than 10,000 institutions that receive grants from the U.S. agency and asked them to review their records for evidence of any malfeasance.
In the letters, Collins told the institutions that the NIH was particularly interested in hearing about any failures by researchers to disclose substantial contributions of resources from other organizations, including foreign governments, which threatened to distort decisions about the appropriate use of U.S. funding.
He said the NIH also wanted to know if there had been any intellectual property detailed in grant applications or that derived from U.S.-supported biomedical research that had been diverted by other entities, including other countries.
In addition, the agency wanted to know if any confidential information had been shared by peer reviewers to others, including foreign entities, or if there had been any attempts to influence funding decisions, Collins said.
Some of the institutions initially reacted with "surprise and denial," Collins said at the April 11 hearing.
Now, though, they are "realizing they have a problem," he said.
Collins said some institutions have already fired some researchers who had diverted intellectual property or who had been "double-dipping," meaning they received U.S. funds while not disclosing they were also being funded by foreign entities.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., chairman of the Senate subcommittee, said lawmakers were aware the Chinese government had a program aimed at recruiting U.S.-funded researchers to "steal intellectual property, cheat the peer-review system, establish shadow laboratories in China and help the Chinese government obtain confidential information about NIH research grants."
"The Chinese government is trying to undermine the U.S. research infrastructure," Blunt said. "This is a serious threat."
Avoiding racial profiling
But Blunt also acknowledged the U.S. has benefited from talented foreign researchers, who have helped move the American biomedical enterprise forward.
"As I have said many times, I believe that any foreign student coming to the United States for advanced education should be able to stay in the U.S. after that training is complete," the Missouri senator said. "There's a research synergy that you achieve by bringing people together from totally different preparations styles and everything else into that research moment."
Collins emphasized it was important the investigations not be carried "to the point where anybody who is a foreign national begins to feel like they are under suspicion, even if they are honorable contributors to our workforce."
"We need to be careful we don't step into something that almost seems a little like racial profiling," Collins said.
"The "vast majority" of foreign scientists doing work in the U.S. "have been incredibly important and honorable contributors to our workforce," he added.
Earlier this month, news broke that two Iranian graduate students had been blocked from participating in activities on the NIH's campus, with one even being escorted from the premises in the midst of his scientific presentation.
The two campus security incidents were unrelated to the ongoing investigations about diversion and theft of U.S.-funded research. But the situation left some questioning whether foreign scientists were welcome at the NIH.
In an April 5 email to NIH staff, Collins said the situation with the graduate students had been "mishandled," and said he was "deeply troubled" by the matter. He said he had apologized to the research students.
In an April 5 tweet, Collins emphasized thousands of scientists and other people from foreign nations visit the NIH every year.
"While we have certain security constraints, it's our responsibility to ensure that all of our guests, no matter what country they are from, have a positive experience entering the campus," he wrote.
Addressing sexual harassment, gender equality
At the hearing, Collins said the NIH was also working to ensure there was not only cultural diversity in the U.S. biomedical research community but also gender equality.
He acknowledged the NIH and the U.S. scientific community overall have been confronting complaints about sexual harassment.
In late February, Collins and other top NIH leaders apologized for taking "so long to acknowledge and address the climate and culture" of sexual harassment that has "caused harm" to some scientists' careers.
The agency formed a working group, which is expected to release an interim report in June and a final set of recommendations in December.
"Harassment undermines scientists and researchers' professional and educational attainment and erodes the integrity of the research enterprise," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking member on the Senate subcommittee, said at the hearing. "It makes survivors feel inferior or that they don't belong, and it drives promising young scientists away from research, at great cost to the nation and to our scientific advancement."
Collins said addressing the "prominent and pervasive" problem of sexual harassment was a critical priority for him.
"It is unacceptable, it's morally indefensible and it drives talented women away from the workforce who could make wonderful contributions," he told the senators.
He said gender harassment — "the way in which our culture encourages women oftentimes to think they don't belong there, by subtle comments that are made, usually by men" — also must be addressed.
"We have to change that," Collins said.