US institutions may penalize NIH-funded scientists who fail to disclose foreign ties

US institutions may penalize NIH-funded scientists who fail to disclose foreign ties

There is growing concern in the US regarding the potential exploitation of federal research funds by foreign governments. As the funding agencies are under a lot of pressure to ensure their funds are being utilized ethically, recently the National Institutes of Health (NIH) sent letters to grantee institutions demanding an investigation of NIH-funded foreign researchers.

Following this, the director of the NIH Francis Collins testified on the fiscal year 2020 budget proposal before the Senate Appropriations Committee panel that manages the NIH’s budget. Senator Roy Blunt, who chairs the panel, queried Collins about NIH’s rules regarding the disclosure of foreign ties.

Senator Blunt stated that foreign governments are trying to take advantage of US research “by stealing it.”  He added that, NIH has to be sure that the research community is fully aware of the threats and more importantly, how to combat those threats.

Collins testified that foreign scientists who received funding from the NIH at 55 U.S. institutions are under investigation. According to Collins, the investigation revealed that some scientists were involved in “double dipping” or acquiring undisclosed foreign funding for work that was also being funded by the NIH. Some were also found guilty of “diverting intellectual property” and divulging information about grant proposals to foreign countries. Collins told Blunt that faculty who were found guilty of such practices have been fired or asked to leave the institution. Some of them have returned to their homeland.

Collins said that some institutions will announce the actions they have taken to prevent the exploitation of the NIH funding by foreign governments in the following weeks. “Actions are being taken and you will see more evidence of that in the press, particularly in the next week or two, he said. The main intention behind this move is to prevent theft of any US intellectual property or technology.

Several members of the scientific community have expressed concerns about these unprecedented inquiries and unfair targeting of honest researchers. However, both Collins and Blunt noted that most foreign scientists funded by NIH abide by the rules and contribute significantly to research. Collins assured that they would refrain from taking any steps that would come across as “racial profiling.” The efficacy and long-term impact of these investigations remain to be seen.  

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