Monday 26 April 2021

Balancing Security Concerning University Research and Anti-Asian Sentiment in the United States: U.S. Senate Hearings

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 policies. · Interventions to address previously un‐reported affiliations with foreign institutions. · Relinquishment or refund of NIH funds.· Prohibition of certain individuals from serving as investigators on NIH grants. · Outreach to FBI for assistance. · 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. 

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