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NIH could do more to address foreign threats, reports say

Reports stem from congressional fears that NIH-backed researchers could share taxpayer-funded research with foreign governments

HHS auditors urge research institutions like the National Institutes of Health to follow requirements to disclose foreign funding and consider national security in the peer-review vetting system. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
HHS auditors urge research institutions like the National Institutes of Health to follow requirements to disclose foreign funding and consider national security in the peer-review vetting system. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

The National Institutes of Health should do more to ensure that investigators and grant reviewers aren’t susceptible to foreign influence, according to a trio of reports from the Health and Human Services inspector general released Friday.

The inspector general recommended that the NIH enhance its vetting processes for the independent researchers who review grant applications. The agency could also do more to ensure that research institutions comply with requirements to ensure that investigators disclose all of their funding sources.

The reports stem from congressional fears that NIH-backed researchers could share the fruits of their taxpayer-funded labor with foreign governments.

“The Chinese government has started a program to recruit NIH-funded researchers to steal intellectual property, cheat the peer-review system, establish shadow laboratories in China, and help the Chinese government obtain confidential information about NIH research grants,” reads a report accompanying the Senate’s draft fiscal 2020 spending bill that funds the NIH.

That report, by the Senate Appropriations Committee, similarly urges the NIH to develop an education campaign to ensure that research institutions know about requirements to disclose foreign funding and consider national security in the peer-review vetting system.

The concern has its roots in episodes like a 2013 case where Chinese researchers were charged with stealing research from an NIH-backed university in the United States. Earlier this year, NIH Director Francis Collins told a Senate panel that the FBI was investigating 55 research institutions over problematic overseas ties.

When Congress provided funding for HHS in fiscal 2019, it included $5 million for the inspector general to examine the NIH’s oversight of whether grantees comply with NIH policies.

About 70 percent of the NIH’s $37 billion budget in fiscal 2018 went to grants for researchers outside of government. There were more than 300,000 investigators at 2,500 research institutions, according to the IG.

Before being selected for grants, applications go through a peer-review process. Most of the 27,000 peer reviewers are not employees of the NIH or the federal government, but they go through an extensive vetting process. They are selected primarily based on their expertise and ability to be impartial, and most are NIH grant recipients themselves, but the ability to maintain confidentiality and security are also considerations.

But there are concerns that the individuals who have conducted the peer reviews could help foreign governments access confidential information in the grant applications.

‘Unlikely to discover concerns’

In one report, the inspector general said that NIH has not specifically addressed concerns about foreign threats when it vets peer reviewers.

The peer review nominees don’t undergo a traditional background check, and the NIH guidelines for vetting typically recommend performing a Google search to screen for news reports about criminal activity, sexual misconduct or other legal issues, the IG report said.

“Relying on the Internet or news organizations means that the NIH is unlikely to discover concerns that are not reported in the public domain,” the report said.

It recommended that the NIH work with the HHS Office of National Security to develop a risk-based strategy to enhance vetting for a subset of peer reviewers, such as focusing on reviewers who work on the most sensitive proposals.

The NIH said that it is developing a risk-based approach to identifying peer review nominees who need additional scrutiny, and noted to the IG that undertaking more extensive peer reviews would require up to 100 additional staff members to conduct the work.

Two of the reports focused on the NIH’s ability to track financial conflicts of interest among its investigators. A financial conflict of interest occurs when one of the investigator’s significant sources of funding or other support affects the design, conduct or reporting of the research.

In fiscal 2018, 3 percent of grants had investigators with conflicts, the IG said, totaling 2,755 individuals who received $1 billion.

It’s up to individual researchers to disclose their funding sources and for the research institutions themselves to review the investigator’s sources of research support and determine if those are conflicts of interest. The NIH is supposed to determine whether the institutes are carrying out that oversight, but there are no federal requirements for the NIH to ensure that all income sources are disclosed.

One of the reports said the NIH has made improvements in overseeing the conflicts over the last decade by strengthening reporting requirements and developing an online system for collecting conflict of interest reports.

But the NIH doesn’t track when the conflicts involve foreign entities because the institutions don’t have to report that, the IG found. The inspector general said the NIH should consider updating its conflict reporting guidelines to include information about foreign funding.

An institute’s financial conflict of interest policy is supposed to be publicly accessible online, according to HHS rules.

The third report found that more than half of the institutes receiving NIH funding that were supposed to have conflict-reporting policies did not make them publicly available, meaning that researchers may not know their obligations.

The IG suggested that NIH establish procedures to ensure that all grantee institutions have conflict reporting policies. The NIH noted that the institutions without the policies in place only represented about 5 percent of research funding.

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