It's not just Charles Lieber: NIH's ongoing investigation has swept up 54 scientists who violated rules about foreign ties
The NIH’s working group for foreign influences on research integrity has opened cases against 189 scientists suspected of violations related to overseas ties since launching an ongoing, sweeping investigation almost two years ago, newly available statistics showed, leading to the terminations and resignations of 54 scientists.
Of those who have been investigated, 41% have also been removed from the NIH system, barred from seeking further grants. Michael Lauer, NIH’s head of extramural research, presented a comprehensive set of these and other numbers in a virtual update on Friday, just a day after Charles Lieber — the former head of Harvard’s chemistry department — was indicted in federal court for lying about his Chinese connections.
While high-profile cases like Lieber’s, as well as those at MD Anderson, Emory University and Moffitt before him, have gripped the biomedical field, they merely represent individual snapshots of when institutions respond to the NIH’s warnings about hidden foreign ties. The official data shine light on the broader picture.
For one, more could be coming. The NIH has identified 399 scientists of possible concern in total, 251 of whom screened “positive,” with another 72 “pending.”
Agency director Francis Collins called that picture “sobering,” according to Science, which first reported on Lauer’s remarks.
At the heart of the issue, Lauer highlighted, isn’t that US researchers are collaborating with investigators in foreign countries. Rather, it’s often about NIH-backed scientists’ failure to disclose significant resources from alternative sources, conflicts of interest or patents. In certain cases, there were even peer review violations.
Overall, China stood out as the top country providing foreign support to scientists, either reflecting or confirming the longstanding rhetoric on academic espionage. Presumably through the Thousand Talents Program, Chinese funding was involved in 93% of the cases.
It may thus be unsurprising that the vast majority of cases involve an Asian man in his 50s, although 14% of the investigations centered around whites. On average, the NIH has issued $678,000 in grant support to each of these scientists, who are spread across 27 states and 59 cities.
But there is hope that institutions are growing more aware of the problems — which might not have previously been considered serious until the FBI and the NIH cracked down on them — and taking actions against non-compliance. As part of their efforts, the NIH has contacted 87 universities or research centers; slightly more than half mentioned they are implementing new measures.
In a nod to concerns that the heightened sentiments are stoking fears among scientists of Asian heritage who fear they may be targeted, Lauer made sure to tuck this reassurance to the end of his slides:
We reiterate the importance of the contribution of foreign scientists to biomedical research; we must not create a climate that is unwelcoming to them.