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Two more research institutions caught up in federal crackdown on foreign influence


By David Schwartz
Published: January 7th, 2020

The turmoil surrounding the federal government’s crackdown on foreign influence in U.S. research activity continues, as the Justice Department reached a $5.5. million settlement with a Michigan research institute, and a Florida cancer center announced sudden resignations of its CEO, a VP, and four researchers. Both developments are related to misdeeds involving the Chinese government.

In Michigan, the Van Andel Research Institute (VARI) in Grand Rapids was accused of failing to disclose Chinese government grants received by two of its researchers, for which it has now agreed to the $5.5 million fine. Federal officials said the institute acted with “deliberate ignorance or reckless disregard” when it applied for federal grants on the scientists’ behalf without disclosing that the researchers had already been receiving funding from China.

The institute said in a statement that it did not admit any wrongdoing as part of the settlement and that the case “has no connection to the quality of the Institute’s science or the validity of our research findings.” The statement also noted that “both professors referenced in this civil matter have resigned from VARI.”

The Justice Department says institutions that apply for NIH funding, but fail to disclose foreign government grants, violate federal rules that require them to reveal when research will be or has already been performed outside the U.S. In this case, officials say, the institute learned about Chinese grants to one of the researchers while reviewing a proposed press release for a journal article the scientist was publishing. Instead of asking for more details about the scope of foreign funding that needed to be disclosed to NIH, officials removed references to the Chinese grants from the press release.

“It is imperative that recipients of NIH grant funds properly report all sources of research support, financial interests and affiliations of individual researchers to ensure the proper and effective use of taxpayer dollars,” said Lamont Pugh III, a senior official with the Department of Health and Human Service’s inspector general’s office.

Meanwhile in the Tampa Bay area of Florida, the Moffitt Cancer Center underwent a major shake-up in late December when CEO Dr. Alan List, a vice president and four researchers abruptly resigned in the wake of allegations related to China’s involvement in research conducted there. The center says it found evidence that the researchers were compensated by a Chinese talent recruitment program and failed to disclose it.

The federal government is still trying to grapple with cases like these countrywide, said Dr. Michael Lauer, NIH deputy director for extramural research. “Research has been compromised,” he said, though Moffitt claims its own research was not affected. “Funding went to projects it never should have. Meanwhile, other proposals didn’t get the funding they deserved.”

The NIH has opened 180 formal inquiries related to instances of foreign meddling in grant research and funding. In some cases, researchers shared peer-reviewed proposals with the Chinese government, and that research was copied verbatim in Chinese laboratories. Other instances include American researchers being paid by both the NIH and the Chinese government for the same work.

“Many of the universities had no clue this was happening on their campuses,” Lauer said. “The scientists they employed never told them about any ties to China, or that they were also employed there.”

Said Lauer: “Perhaps the most serious loss is that this has enabled China to know what’s going on inside American laboratories, and get a head start on everyone else.”

Sources: AP News and Tampa Bay Times

Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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