On April 22, 2021, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held hearings on “Protecting U.S. Biomedical Research: Efforts to Prevent Undue Foreign Influence.” The Committee heard testimony from representatives from various governmental entities, including the National Institutes of Health [NIH] and the Government Accounting Office. In written testimony, Dr. Michael Lauer, Deputy Director for Extramural Research at the NIH, explored the tension between balancing security and very serious anti-Asian sentiment in the United States. The context involves the attempts by governments to take advantage of the open collaboration amongst international researchers in attempting to address biomedical crises. Notably, Dr. Lauer pointed to three issues confronted by the NIH concerning security and biomedical research:
1) failure by some researchers at NIH‐funded institutions to
disclose substantial contributions of resources from other organizations,
including foreign governments and businesses, which threatens to distort
decisions about the appropriate use of NIH funds and accurate evaluation of
commitment of effort to US‐supported research; 2) diversion of proprietary
information included in grant applications or produced by NIH‐ supported
biomedical research to other entities, including other countries; and 3)
failure by some peer reviewers to keep information in grant applications
confidential; including, in some instances, disclosure to foreign entities or
other attempts to influence funding decisions.
Dr. Lauer raises attempts by the NIH to address these
issues, including cybersecurity measures.
Importantly, he states that the NIH has contacted over 90 awardee
institutions and over 900 scientists raising potential serious concerns. Dr. Lauer also raised potential actions that
can be taken by the NIH:
Terminations or suspensions of scientists who have engaged in
egregious violations of NIH grant terms and conditions and institutional
Interventions to address previously un‐reported affiliations with foreign
Relinquishment or refund of NIH funds.·
Prohibition of certain individuals from serving as investigators on NIH grants.
· Outreach to FBI for
Discovery (through acquisition of certain foreign grants and contracts) of
overlapping or duplicative work, or conflicts in stating committed effort to
research projects. This discovery has led to NIH suspensions of active grants
as appropriate. ·
Efforts to raise awareness among institutional faculty about government and
institutional policies dealing with foreign affiliations and relationships
(see, for example, the Penn State web site).
In addressing concerns with
anti-Asian violence in the United States, Dr. Lauer states, in part:
We must ensure that our responses to this issue do not create
a hostile environment for colleagues who are deeply dedicated to advancing
human health through scientific inquiry. We cannot afford to reject brilliant
minds working honestly and collaboratively to provide hope and healing to
millions around the world.
Dr. Lauer’s testimony can be found, here. The difficulty, of course, is maintaining security
while at the same time fostering an open and collaborative environment wherein research
can continue to flourish. It will be
interesting to see how this develops. The
COVID-19 global pandemic has decreased human movement throughout the world likely increasing
the transfer of information through digital networks and resulting in even
greater importance of the security of networks.
At the same time, as COVID-19 eases eventually (and hopefully), how will
the United States ensure that foreign researchers and entrepreneurs,
particularly from China, will feel welcome attending university and working in the
United States. Notably, the U.S. Senate
recently passed legislation, almost unanimously (94-1 – only Senator Josh Hawley
voting against it), addressing anti-Asian hate crimes.