- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 17, 2020

More than 50 scientists resigned or were fired following a National Institutes of Health investigation into how they disclosed their ties to foreign governments while collecting grants from the massive research agency.

Of the 399 “scientists of possible concern” identified by NIH, some 93% received foreign support from China, according to Dr. Michael S. Lauer, NIH’s deputy director for extramural research.

NIH discovered a widespread pattern of impropriety at 87 institutions across the country in 59 cities. The NIH plans to continue referring scientists for criminal and civil penalties in the weeks and months to come, Dr. Lauer said.

“The fact that this was happening in so many places, all over the United States, we’re talking about a wide variety of institutions from Harvard to the University of Florida to MD Anderson Cancer Center, these are very different kinds of places and yet the patterns that we’re seeing are very much the same,” he told The Washington Times. “I don’t think that this is something that there are particular institutions that are vulnerable.”

Some scientists’ improper relationships with China have yielded criminal charges and captured headlines in recent months. On Tuesday, the former head of Harvard’s chemistry department, Charles Lieber, pleaded not guilty on charges that he lied about his ties to a Chinese recruitment program.

NIH found that the foreign entities targeted the full gamut of biomedical research particularly at laboratories, involving research on cancer, mental health, cardiovascular science, and neuroscience, among many other issues. Most of the work was basic science or early translational science, meaning it did not involve clinical trials.

The scientists were on average 56 years old and the average individual NIH grant amounted to $678,000 per scientist but ranged up to $1.29 million, according to NIH.

NIH funds more than 300,000 researchers at more than 2,500 universities and organizations, according to its website.

The Center for International Policy’s Ben Freeman, who studies foreign government influence in the U.S., said while the bad actors appear to represent less than 0.1% of the total grantees, a single scientist giving cutting-edge research to China could harm U.S. national security.

“If there is a systemic problem at institutions, those institutions should be banned from receiving NIH research grants, or any grants from the U.S. government,” Mr. Freeman said. “Individual scientists that repeatedly or egregiously skirt the rules and regulations should not be allowed to continue working at institutions that receive U.S. taxpayer money. The bottom line is that the punishments should work to ensure U.S. taxpayers aren’t being asked to foot the bill for scientists’ research that is going to be sold to a foreign power.”

NIH’s investigation into foreign influence on the scientists began four years ago and expanded in 2018, Dr. Lauer said. NIH credited the FBI, Justice Department, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the State Department among other agencies as helping it uncover foreign influence among the scientists.

• Ryan Lovelace can be reached at rlovelace@washingtontimes.com.

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