NIH considers restrictions to counter foreign influence in research

An agency working group advises stronger security measures, but raises concerns about stigmatizing foreign researchers in the United States.

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The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) is considering putting new restrictions on its grant-review process and clarifying its funding-disclosure rules to prevent foreign governments from stealing intellectual property or influencing the results of research at US institutions.

The move comes in response to mounting concerns from Congress and the White House that citizens of other countries could be stealing US secrets through universities and other research institutions. Internal investigations at the NIH have found such breaches among some of the researchers that it funds. But NIH director Francis Collins declined to comment on what he said were ongoing investigations.

Since August, a working group co-led by Roy Wilson, president of Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, has been developing a set of recommendations for how to prevent leaks of intellectual property at the NIH and institutions that it funds.

The proposal, presented on 13 December in Bethesda, Maryland, at a meeting of a council that advises the NIH director, urges the agency to clarify its rules about when researchers should disclose foreign funding and collaborations. Wilson’s team says that the NIH needs to improve how it educates institutions and researchers about those policies, and the risks of confidential grant information being stolen. The group also recommends that the agency institute security measures such as preventing peer reviewers from downloading or printing grants under review.

The working group and agency officials say that they want to balance security measures against concerns that instituting overly strict rules could stigmatize foreign-born researchers, who make up about 30% of the university-educated scientists and engineers working in the United States.

The NIH has not yet formally accepted the recommendations, which the agency’s lawyers are reviewing.

Plugging the leaks

“There are significant breaches that are occurring at our universities,” says Wilson. He declined to say how often this happens, because some of the information is classified, but says it’s “not insignificant”. Most of the concern centres on China, although that isn't the only country that attempts to steal intellectual property from the United States, Wilson says.

The agency has discovered cases in which NIH-funded researchers have disclosed information about confidential grants to people with ties to foreign governments during the peer-review process. Poor cybersecurity practices can allow such information to leak, says the working group’s report.

In other instances, scientists have established “shadow labs” in foreign countries, or collaborated with teams overseas without disclosing this to their universities or funders, says Wilson. This violates disclosure rules for NIH-funded researchers.

Classified information provided to the agency by the FBI about such breaches “forced all of us who wanted not to believe this to have to take it seriously”, says Collins.

He adds that the NIH is currently investigating more than ten institutions that have failed to comply with disclosure rules. Collins hopes that the working group’s recommendations will help to prevent mistakes, although he acknowledges that the proposed measures won’t deter a determined government or criminal from stealing intellectual property.

Avoiding stigma

The issue is tricky for the NIH to navigate, because officials don’t want to create a stigma against foreign-born researchers, or raise undue suspicions. Chinese-born scientists in particular have been subjected to investigations and accusations of espionage in recent years, many of which have turned out to be unfounded. In 2014, hydrologist Sherry Chen of the National Weather Service in Wilmington, Ohio, was arrested and charged with spying after corresponding with a Chinese official. Prosecutors dropped the charges a few months later.

“There are countries and governments we may have issues with, but we have to be careful that’s not necessarily reflected in our treatment towards individuals from those countries," says Tobin Smith, vice-president for policy at the Association of American Universities in Washington DC.

“We have to continually say that this is a concern about a small minority of foreign nationals who may be taking advantage of the openness of the American system,” Collins says. The vast majority of them are wonderful partners, he adds.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07775-2

Updates & Corrections

  • Update 17 December 2018: This story has been updated with additional information from the working group report and comments from Francis Collins. It also contains new comments from Tobin Smith.

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