On Wednesday, the United States Senate Finance Committee met to discuss Foreign Threats to Taxpayer – Funded Research: Oversight Opportunities and Policy Solutions. The webpage includes a video of the session (which begins approximately 30 mins in) and written testimonies from panelists in attendance. We are preparing a statement to submit to the Committee as part of the testimony – if you have points you would like us to raise or would like to provide input, please contact info@futureofresearch.org

The hearing sought to discuss, particularly with responsive federal agencies, four main issues related to taxpayer research as laid out by the Committee Chair, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA):

1) the failure to disclose receipt of foreign contributions

2) espionage – or in the words of Senator Grassley, “some researchers are spies”;

3) vetting of researchers – that the federal government does not vet researchers, and neither do institutions; and

4) integrity – addressing the discovery that some peer reviewers have shared confidential grant information.

Testimony in the first panel was heard from representatives of Health and Human Services, including the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Homeland Security, to answer “does the government have the capability to detect and counter these threats?” and discuss legislative and policy solutions to address the issue. Senator Grassley pointed out that the Counterintelligence unit at the FBI had declined to attend and had not explained why. A second panel consisted of a representative from the academic community.

We attempted to capture the discussion in a series of tweets, but some key points appeared to emerge. China, Iran and Russia were mentioned as particular countries of interest, with Pakistan also mentioned. 16 ongoing cases under investigation were mentioned, as well as discussions between NIH and 61 of its awardee institutions.

It was pointed out that this was likely not a new problem – e.g. the phenomenon of foreign researchers attempting to influence research in the Cold War – and this was met with the response that protocols are in place to address these problems. Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) pressed Dr. Tabak of the NIH to explain the difference between a researcher taking their knowledge to a foreign nation to start a new job, and espionage. Dr. Tabak replied, “That would be a success story” but when pressed by Senator Cassidy to explain in a concrete fashion how to differentiate someone taking their knowledge abroad, and how university administrators can understand how to identify what is correct vs not correct, Tabak discussed intellectual property resting at an institution as an example.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) asked the Department of Homeland Security to clarify that the plot they were following was that a student comes to the U.S. to study, and then returns home to use that knowledge, which the representative confirmed was their line of inquiry.

There was disagreement amongst the panelists about whether best practices currently exist for dealing with the issue, and this illustrated a larger issue that emerged as questioning continued, that many lawmakers pursued the line that local institutions had been left without clear guidance and instruction. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) took a dim view of the Dear Colleague letter sent out by NIH Director Francis Collins to institutions, asking instead what ongoing and adaptable efforts there were to help institutions identify threats. Asking who the coordinating entity was, Senator Cantwell did not get a clear response.

A second panel consisted solely of Dr. Joe Gray from Oregon Health Sciences University. Dr. Gray spoke of the risk of stifling innovation by imposing constraints on top of an already huge burden of requirements. Dr. Gray stated that the best and brightest scientists come to the U.S. precisely because of the open system at present, and that restrictions due to actions of a few may have a greater negative effect overall. He agreed that there needs to be rigorous enforcement of laws; but imposing additional vetting stigmatizes the whole community, and he expressed concern that it will diminish the ability in the U.S. to innovate.

When asked by Senator Grassley, “If you found one of your researchers failed to disclose foreign funds, what would you do?” Dr Gray replied that it’s not clear what the rules are, as they have been changing recently. He said he would discuss the issue with them, and obviously, if it was for nefarious purposes then that would be grounds for termination. But he stated that because it is currently unclear what the appropriate steps are, it would be hard to make that determination.

Ultimately, it appears that a state of confusion exists as to what the actual protocols and steps are, with institutions receiving little guidance from federal agencies other than instruction to take some sort of action. Five researchers of Chinese origin who had received NIH funding have already been dismissed from two research institutions in as yet unclear circumstances. It is not clear that the research community, particularly that under the purview of NIH, is as yet responding in a focused or well-coordinated manner, which may have detrimental effects for a system so dependent on foreign-born researchers.