publication date: Jun. 14, 2019

Emory fires two NIH-funded faculty members for not disclosing foreign sources of funding and work in China

By Claire Dietz

Emory University has terminated two NIH-funded faculty members at the Department of Genetics for failing to disclose foreign sources of funding and the extent of their involvement with institutions in People’s Republic of China.

“Since this is a personnel matter, we cannot share specific details; however, through the course of an investigation prompted by an NIH inquiry, Emory determined that these faculty members had failed to fully disclose foreign sources of research funding and the extent of their work for research institutions and universities in China,” Vikas P. Sukhatme, dean of Emory University School of Medicine, said in a memo to the faculty and staff. “Please note we are working to minimize disruption within the department and taking steps to ensure research projects continue.”

According to Science, the two researchers are disputing their termination. The journal reported “neuroscientist Li Xiao-Jiang says the university dismissed him and neuroscientist Li Shihua, his wife and lab co-leader, ‘simultaneously without any notice or opportunity for us to respond to unverified accusations.’”

In April, three faculty members at MD Anderson Cancer Center were sanctioned for failure to ensure confidentiality of review of NIH grants (The Cancer Letter, April 26). These scientists had also failed to disclose outside funding, academic appointments, and roles in laboratories outside the U.S.

The MD Anderson cases included:

  • Unauthorized sharing of confidential material and failure to disclose affiliations in People’s Republic of China;

  • Failure to disclose personal relationships with PIs and academic appointments in People’s Republic of China;

  • Emailing an NIH grant application to a scientist based in the People’s Republic of China.

The Senate Committee on Finance June 5 held a hearing focused on foreign threats to taxpayer-funded research. The hearing examined the actions several departments of the federal government—including HHS and NIH—have taken in response to the recent uptick in reports of researchers failing to disclose funding and academic appointments outside the U.S. (The Cancer Letter, April 26).

A webcast of the committee hearing can be found here.

“Truly free collaboration and exchange of information is only possible when data and sources are credible, and the research process can be trusted,” Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said in a statement. “That trust is destroyed when foreign governments and other entities interfere in our research for their gain and to our detriment.”

In his testimony, Joe W. Gray, the Gordon Moore Chair of Biomedical Engineering and associate director for Biophysical Oncology in the Knight Cancer Institute at Oregon Health & Science University, cautioned against “stifling innovation whenever we constrain interactions.

“It has been my experience that the way people approach problems is colored strongly by their past experiences and by the nature of their education,” Gray said in submitted testimony. “It is also my experience that individuals educated in other countries bring different ways of thinking and different facts.

“Further, these individuals undergo extensive vetting to ensure a high level of education and potential. Thus, I believe that innovative solutions to the complex problems we are trying to solve throughout the biomedical community today will occur most rapidly through the free and open exchange of information and ideas, including with a broad range of foreign nationals.”

The controls on data sharing that are now in place do protect against most forms of data misuse may also have a negative impact on innovation, Gray said.

“The economic strength of the U.S. depends on innovation and on the speedy implementation and commercialization of innovative ideas,” Gray said. “I believe that the controls that are already in place provide a workable balance between protecting data and intellectual property and allowing the free exchange of data and information needed for effective innovation.”

Grassley singled out China as a particular threat. Some of the threats to research include, “spying, theft of intellectual property, [and] disclosure of confidential information,” he said.

“We are aware that a few foreign governments have initiated systematic programs to capitalize on the collaborative nature of biomedical research and unduly influence U.S.-based researchers,” Lawrence A. Tabak, NIH principal deputy director, said in submitted testimony. “It is essential for us to continue vigilance and take additional actions to protect the integrity of the U.S. biomedical research enterprise, while also protecting important relationships with foreign scientists worldwide.”

Tabak said NIH has taken the following measures have been taken to identify and monitor these problems:

  • Partnering with colleagues at the Department of Health and Human Services and the FBI to exchange information on emerging threats;

  • Developing a new dashboard to assist NIH in responding to data requests needed for its reviews in this context;

  • Maintaining an open channel of communication with funded research institutions and investigators;

  • Training NIH staff to identify and report suspicious activity on the part of key scientists designated in grant applications as well as peer reviewers.

According to Tabak, actions awardee institutions have taken to mitigate concerns include:

  • Terminating or suspending scientists;

  • Intervening to address previously unreported affiliations with foreign institutions;

  • Relinquishing or refunding of NIH funds;

  • Prohibiting certain individuals from serving as investigators on NIH grants;

  • Raising awareness among institutional faculty about government and institutional policies dealing with foreign affiliations and relationships.

“We have evaluations underway to assess NIH’s vetting and oversight of its peer reviewers, including its efforts to prevent or identify inappropriate disclosure of information by peer reviewers, and an evaluation of how NIH monitors the financial conflicts of interest, including foreign financial interests, reported by grantee institutions,” Leslie W. Hollie, chief of investigative operations in the HHS Office of Inspector General, said in submitted testimony.

The largest number of ongoing cases regarding transmission of technical data involve China, Russia, and Iran, Louis A. Rodi, acting assistant director of the National Security Investigations Division of Homeland Security Investigations, said in submitted testimony.

“Exploitation of academia and U.S. research institutions is just one of the schemes these countries are employing to obtain access to sensitive research and export-controlled information and technology, and to facilitate its transfer abroad,” Rodi said. “These countries are attempting to obtain this information, in many instances in an illegal or subversive manner, in order to advance their own military capabilities or economic goals, many times in contravention to the national security of the U.S.”

Copyright (c) 2019 The Cancer Letter Inc.