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Exclusive: US National Science Foundation reveals first details on foreign-influence investigations

National Science Foundation sign

The National Science Foundation is one of several US funding agencies that has punished researchers for not disclosing foreign financial ties.Credit: B Christopher/Alamy

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) has for the first time released figures on the actions it has taken against researchers found to have violated rules on the disclosure of foreign ties. Since 2018, the agency has reassigned, suspended or terminated grants, forced institutions to return funds or barred researchers from applying for future funding in 16–20 cases in which rules weren’t followed, according to Rebecca Keiser, the agency’s first chief of research security strategy and policy.

All of these were cases in which the NSF’s Office of Inspector General, an independent body responsible for oversight of the agency and its grant recipients, had investigated and made recommendations on how to handle sanctions. Separately, the inspector-general referred an undisclosed number of criminal and civil cases involving fraud and nondisclosure to the US Department of Justice.

Furthermore, in the past two months, seven universities have contacted the NSF directly with information on faculty members who might have violated rules.

“We’re only starting to understand these issues,” says Keiser, who was appointed in March to tackle foreign interference. All but two of the cases involved ties to China, although a majority of the scientists in cases referred by the inspector-general are US citizens and are not ethnically Chinese.

Most of the cases involve “very well-known academics”, who seem to have been offered money or status because of their accomplishments in their fields, Keiser adds.

The 16–20 cases referred by the inspector-general involve some grant recipients who spent several months a year outside the United States, strongly indicating an undisclosed affiliation. Others received outside support for research that seems to be covered by an NSF grant, a practice known as double dipping.

A lot of the university-reported cases are not being referred to the inspector-general; in some, the NSF needs only to clarify details about potential funding overlaps with universities, Keiser says.

To protect their privacy, she declined to offer details about the researchers or the specific issues and actions taken in each case. She says that some investigations have resulted in universities terminating researchers’ employment because they did not disclose foreign ties, but the NSF doesn’t know how often this has happened.

Caught by surprise

For several years, US funding agencies have been on high alert about the influence of foreign governments in federally funded basic research. The fear is that US intellectual property, including basic research, is being pilfered.

So the NSF, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other funders have been actively pushing universities and scientists to disclose ties, and the FBI has been seeking out undisclosed or inappropriate connections. Many scientists with financial ties in China have come under scrutiny, particularly those involved in the Thousand Talents recruitment programme, which is sponsored by the Chinese government. The FBI dragnet has resulted in many researchers being fired, and at least one high-profile arrest: that of Charles Leiber, a chemist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In June, the NIH said that 189 researchers might have violated grant or institutional rules on research integrity, with 93% having support from China.

A woman with shoulder-length hair speaks into a microphone.

Rebecca Keiser is the National Science Foundation’s first chief of research security strategy and policy, a position designed to deal with foreign interference in research.Credit: NG Images/Alamy

The estimates that Keiser has provided are the first public account of foreign-interference investigations involving NSF grant recipients. Although the numbers are much lower than for the NIH, but Kei Koizumi, a former adviser on science policy at the American Association of Science in Washington DC, says that this is reasonable, because the NSF’s annual budget is comparatively smaller. Heather Pierce, regulatory counsel at the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington DC, adds that the difference makes sense given the focus on intellectual-property theft as an area of concern. “The research funded by NSF includes some fields that may appear less likely to have commercialization potential,” she says.

Calls for more transparency

Some scientists say that the NSF’s approach with regards to scientists receiving support from foreign universities is getting stricter. “The rules are changing,” says Steven Chu, a Nobel-prizewinning physicist at Stanford University in California who was US secretary of energy under president Barack Obama.

But Rita Colwell, a microbiologist who was head of the NSF from 1998 to 2004, says that disclosure rules have existed and been followed for decades — it might be that researchers today aren’t aware of them, and need more training. “It’s staggering to me that there would be wilful non-reporting,” she says. “We did not have to deal with that.”

Many have called for more transparency surrounding the investigations. Jeremy Wu, a member of the board of directors of the Committee of 100 in New York City, a group of prominent Chinese Americans that works to advance US–China relations, says that the NSF or its inspector-general should release more information, such as the number of people under scrutiny. Wu worries that investigations into foreign influence might unfairly target researchers with ties to China. He says it’s not clear whether researchers are being judged on the merits of their individual cases or are being targeted as a group. Without more details, it’s hard to know whether punishments are appropriate, he says.

Keiser says the inspector-general spends “months and months” doing due diligence on cases before making recommendations to the NSF. And the office has told the agency that it doesn’t want the public to jump to conclusions about the scale of problems, which could happen if it reveals the number of people under investigation. But it has requested more staff and funding because its workload has increased by 20–30% over the past two years. A “significant” part of that increase is because of foreign-interference investigations, Keiser says. The Office of Inspector General did not respond to questions by the time this story was ready for publication.

Keiser says that the NSF will continue to be as diligent as possible in enforcing policies, and to do everything it can to inform researchers and universities about requirements for disclosure. “We in the government should do even more to communicate these issues,” she says.

Nature 583, 342 (2020)


Updates & Corrections

  • Clarification 08 July 2020: The story has been updated with a direct quote from Heather Pierce that more accurately reflects her opinion.

  • Correction 09 July 2020: The story stated that the Office of Inspector General made recommendations to the National Science Foundation about non-criminal cases and referred criminal cases to the FBI. The office has since contacted Nature to clarify that administrative recommendations are often made during the course of ongoing investigations to protect NSF funds. It refers criminal and civil cases to the US Department of Justice.The story has also been updated to clarify Steven Chu's statement.


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