Senators to NIH: Do more to protect US biomedical research from foreign influence
Although Thursday’s Senate health committee hearing was focused on how foreign countries and adversaries might be trying to steal or negatively influence biomedical research in the US, the only country mentioned by the senators and expert witnesses was China.
Committee chair Patty Murray (D-WA) made clear in her opening remarks that the US cannot “let the few instances of bad actors” overshadow the hard work of the many immigrant researchers in the US, many of which have won Nobel prizes for their work. But she also said, “There is more the NIH can be doing here.”
The hearing follows a series of high profile convictions of scientists for stealing intellectual property from top biomedical research institutions.
Just this week, Yu Zhou of Ohio was sentenced to 33 months in prison after he pleaded guilty to stealing scientific trade secrets related to exosomes and exosome isolation from Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s Research Institute, which he sought to sell in China.
Song Guo Zheng, A professor of internal medicine and researcher at The Ohio State University and Pennsylvania State University, also pleaded guilty in late 2020 to making false statements to federal authorities as part of an immunology research grant fraud scheme. He admitted to lying on applications in order to use more than $4 million in NIH grants to develop China’s expertise around rheumatology and immunology, according to written testimony Thursday from Gary Cantrell, deputy inspector general at HHS’ Office of Inspector General.
“The threat is significant,” Michael Lauer, deputy director for extramural research at NIH, told the senators. He said NIH has identified more than 500 scientists of concern, and reached out to the institutions where over 200 of them work, although each one requires a tremendous amount of work.
But Lauer also noted instances where research institutions are discovering problems on their own. For instance, Alan List, president and CEO of the Moffitt Cancer Center in Florida, resigned in late 2019 after the center conducted an internal review on collaborations with research institutions in China.
Candice Wright, acting director of science, technology assessment, and analytics at GAO, also explained how non-financial conflicts, such as access to certain research labs or biologic materials, can pose risks too. “Non-financial conflicts can be great risks and we don’t see a lot of attention paid to those,” she said.
But progress has been made in recent years to be more vigilant of potential crimes, even as critics have raised questions about whether this crackdown has unfairly targeted Chinese researchers. Last year, two representatives, Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Judie Chu (D-CA) wrote letters to the FBI and NIH, raising concerns that innocent Chinese scientists were being profiled, and asked for information on the demographic makeup of scientists under investigation.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) conceded that the NIH has come a long way since 2018, when NIH Director Francis Collins sent a letter to more than 10,000 research institutions, urging them to ensure NIH grantees were reporting their links with foreign governments. But he and other senators specifically took issue with China.
“It’s a concerted effort from those in China, backed by their government, to bring back anything they can learn, store or steal,” Burr said. Other Republicans on the committee like Sen. Bill Cassidy (LA) questioned whether 23andMe’s operations in China might be worrisome, but none of the witnesses on the panel offered any specifics.
As anti-Asian sentiment has reached a fever pitch in recent months in the US, Lauer also sought to make clear that the overwhelming majority of Chinese-born scientists working in the US are not bad actors. He said NIH has identified criminals who are Americans too.
“We cannot reject brilliant minds that are working honestly,” Lauer added. “Legitimate international collaborations are great, and this is extremely important, but that’s different from lying, cheating and stealing.”