Summary

  • Dr. Black and Dr. Keiser discuss how the NIH and NSF are ensuring the security of federally-funded research, while maintaining international cooperation. They also discuss how the NIH and NSF are helping U.S. universities and the U.S. research community adapt to new threatsincluding foreign talent programs and undue foreign government influence.  The briefing highlights how stakeholders across the U.S. research and scientific community are working together toward solutions to address these new challenges.  For further background, please see the Department of State’s website on Military-Civil Fusion (MCF) policy. 

THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C. 

MODERATOR:  All right, good afternoon.  My name is Jen McAndrew and I’m a media relations officer with the Washington Foreign Press Center covering the East Asia and Pacific Affairs portfolio.  I want to welcome you today for this on-the-record Zoom briefing on research security.  Today’s briefers are Dr. Jodi Black, deputy director in the Office of Extramural Research at the National Institutes of Health; and Dr. Rebecca Keiser, chief of research security strategy and policy at the National Science Foundation.  Together they will discuss how the NIH and NSF are ensuring the security of federally funded research while maintaining international cooperation; how the NIH and NSF are helping U.S. universities and the U.S. research community adapt to new threats, including foreign talent programs and undue foreign government influence; and how stakeholders across the U.S. research and scientific community are working together toward solutions to address these new challenges. 

And now I will share some background on our briefers.  Dr. Black has over 25 years of scientific research leadership experience with a background in basic and clinical science and program administration.  She has managed multidisciplinary scientific programs in areas including infectious diseases, cancer, and genomics, and has developed strategic alliances between academic health care and commercial organizations.  Dr. Black holds a PhD in pathology and a masters of medical science and infectious diseases from Emory University. 

Our other briefer is Dr. Rebecca Keiser.  She is both the chief of research security strategy and policy and acting head of the Office of International Science and Engineering at the NSF.  Her experience covers science and technology policy agreements and cooperative efforts.  Prior to the NSF, she held several strategy and policy positions with NASA.  Dr. Keiser also served in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.  She earned a master of science from the London School of Economics and a PhD in international studies from University of South Carolina. 

On behalf of the Washington Foreign Press Center, we extend our sincere thanks to our two briefers for giving their time today on this timely topic.  And now for the ground rules:  This briefing is on the record.  We will post the transcript and video later today on our website, which is fpc.state.gov.  If you publish a story as a result of this briefing, please share your story with us by sending an email to dcfpc@state.gov.   

Couple of things to keep in mind while using Zoom:  We have muted all of the participants.  Please ensure that you have clicked on the participant list, hovered on your account, and changed your account to reflect your name and your news outlet, and this will help us during the question and answer portion of the briefing.  Both Dr. Black and Dr. Keiser will each give short opening remarks and then we will open it up for questions.  If you have a question, please go to the chat box.  There is a feature there that allows you to virtually raise your hand.  At that time we will unmute you so that you can ask your question. 

And with that, I will pass it over to Dr. Black. 

MS BLACK:  Okay, I’m going to share my screen and go into presentation mode.  I hope you can all see that. 

Okay, so thank you for inviting me to talk to you today about research security and combating foreign influence from the NIH perspective.  As we noted earlier – my slides are not advancing.  There we go – I’m the deputy director of the Office of Extramural Research at NIH, and that is the office that’s responsible for oversight of all of our grants policies and processes.  NIH is one of the largest biomedical funders in the world.  This year, our budget is $41.6 billion, and 80 percent of that money goes right back out of NIH to fund extramural research and scientists both nationally and internationally. 

Our mission is science in pursuit of fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to extend healthy life and reduce illness and disability.  And we know that in order to accomplish that mission and those goals, it requires international collaboration and international collaborative work, and NIH proudly supports international collaborations and foreign scientists who bring rich, diverse perspectives to the biomedical research enterprise.  Last year, we provided 547 awards to investigators who were working internationally, which totaled about $238 million.  But we want to ensure that the investigators that we support globally – both nationally and globally – align with our values of integrity, honesty, reciprocity, transparency, and meritocracy. 

And as you can see from this little figure on the right, the work that is conducted internationally spans a variety of research topics, including immunology, HIV, infectious diseases, global health, population health, and you can find more about the kinds of research that we support domestically and internationally by — 

MODERATOR:  Dr. Black, apologies for the interruption. 

MS BLACK:  Yes. 

MODERATOR:  We cannot see your slides, so — 

MS BLACK:  You can’t? 

MODERATOR:  I know we tried this earlier, but — 

MS BLACK:  All right.  Well, let’s see what happened. 

MODERATOR:  We are happy to provide them to participants afterwards, but if there’s some button you can push, we’ll make that happen now. 

MS BLACK:  It says it’s sharing the screen.  Share. 

MODERATOR:  Now we can. 

MS BLACK:  Can you see them now? 

MODERATOR:  Yes, we can.  Thank you. 

MS BLACK:  Okay, boy.  All right, how about now? 

MODERATOR:  Perfect.  Thank you very much. 

MS BLACK:  Okay.  So everything I just said is on this slide, so take a look at report.nih.gov to see what NIH is supporting nationally and internationally. 

But we’ve run into some problems in that some nations have exhibited increasingly sophisticated efforts to exploit, influence, and undermine our research activities and our environments.  There’s been a breach of research ethics that includes things like failure to disclose information that we require about foreign funding – about any other support, as a matter of fact.  This has led to unapproved parallel foreign laboratories being supported – and affiliation and appointments outside of their primary employer here in the United States.  We’ve seen conflicting financial interests, undisclosed research for foreign governments, and all of this is being done on U.S. agency time or with U.S. agency funding.  We’ve also seen diversions of intellectual property, breaches of contracts and confidentiality, and we’ve got some egregious examples of gaming of the peer review process.   

So for today, the focus of our discussion is research integrity, and what we mean by research integrity, which is what I described in that paragraph, is not the usual plagiarism or data falsification.  It’s this rising issue of the intent to exfiltrate nascent ideas and information from the U.S. in a systematic and systemic manner that benefits a foreign government.  So this is what we mean by research integrity.  It’s what we’re going to be talking about today, and these activities that I’ve briefly described and will describe in more detail in a second actually prevent the allocation of federal funding in the United States in a fair manner that’s based on merit. 

So some of our key concerns at NIH – some of the things that we’ve experienced – is a failure to disclose substantial foreign resources.  At NIH, we give grants to institutions, not to individuals.  The individual scientists are employed by the institutions that we fund and we require those institutions to disclose to us all sources of other support because we don’t want to duplicate fund.  Most of those institutions also have employment contracts with their employees that prohibits them from having additional employment without permission, but we have seen examples of U.S.-based employees who also have foreign employment arrangements, and in many cases the American institutions are unaware of these employment arrangements.   

So with these duplicate foreign employment arrangements, we also see overlap in work that the NIH is supporting also being supported by another organization duplication of laboratories, and basic overcommitment.  People who are employed by a U.S. academic institution are considered to be 100 percent employed there.  They’re also employed by a foreign institution for 50 to 100 percent of their time.  That’s over 100 percent effort and that’s impossible. 

We’ve seen a failure to disclose significant foreign support, failure to disclose financial conflict of interest, and failure to disclose patents that were developed based on U.S.-funded work.  And this is a breach of NIH policy.  We have policies that require our academic institutions who apply for grants to provide all of their other support so we don’t duplicate fund; to provide all information about financial conflicts of interest, which means if you’ve formed a company or you’re receiving funding from another source, we want to make sure that you can maintain your objectivity in research, so we require that financial conflicts of interest be disclosed.  And any part of our grant awards that are going to have their work done in a foreign country must also be disclosed, even if there’s no money that’s going to the foreign country for that work from the U.S.  But if they’re contributing significantly to the work which will result in a publication, it needs to be disclosed, because we often have to get State Department clearance for those collaborations.  And that information can be found in this – at that URL that’s listed on the slide. 

We’ve also seen some egregious examples of peer review violations.  Our peer review process is supposed to be 100 percent confidential.  All the application material and any of the discussions about the applications are confidential, and NIH has a policy in its GPS – the Grants Policy Statement – that describes that requirement.  All review meetings are closed to the public by regulation, and we ask our peer reviewers to sign confidentiality agreements that they will keep all information in the grant application and all discussions about the grant confidential under penalty of perjury.  And it’s against the law to lie to the government in the United States.   

So we’ve seen – we’ve seen peer reviewers take entire grant applications out of the system and send them to investigators in other country.  Often the applications will be annotated with instructions to look on specific pages for methods or additional materials that will help advance another scientist’s work.  That also represents taking proprietary and pre-publication information and nascent ideas out of the system and handing it to somebody that it doesn’t belong to.  We’ve also seen examples of agreements between peer reviewers to manipulate the scores of specific applicants to give them a better chance at receiving an award, which is also not allowed. 

So about a year or so ago, a subcommittee of the Senate on investigations developed this report about threats to the U.S. research enterprise on China’s talent recruitment plans.  The talents program contracts have their members sign legally binding contracts with Chinese institutions.  The contracts incentivize members to lie on grant applications, to set up shadow labs, and in some cases to transfer U.S. scientists’ intellectual capital and nascent ideas to China.  Some of the contracts also require that they cannot be terminated without the government’s permission.  And this is in stark contrast to the values that we assume we’re all operating on as scientists. 

I want to show you an example of some of the text that we’ve seen in an actual contract.  I blocked out the identifiers.  But here it says, “Party A,” which is the Chinese institution, “employs Party B,” which is usually a U.S. scientist, “as a professor in the Thousand Talents Program for five years, and Party B shall work full time on the premises.”  Meanwhile, they also have a job in the United States.  And the purpose of the employment period is to gradually move the U.S. lab to China to build international cutting-edge research.  So this is not a clean recruitment because it happens over the period of five years where individuals are going back and forth from the lab in the United States and gradually transitioning intellectual capital to China, and you can read more about this at that website on the bottom of the page.  

So here are some of the things that we have seen in these foreign employment agreements as a summary.  And just to be clear, these programs target very high-level senior tenured professors.  They have a lot of influence and knowledge about their field.  Many of them are expatriates, all of them are U.S. citizens, and most, but not all of them, are Chinese.  And so what we’ve seen as a result of these recruitment efforts is serious overlap in time commitments.  Sometimes they’re required to work in country in China full time.  Substantial funding for research is provided, including startup funds from China.  They’re also provided with laboratories – often they’re fully equipped and include personnel – and they’re given signing bonuses, salary support, and they’re already receiving salary support from their American institution.  Other incentives might include housing or childcare or a job for their spouse, and there’s clear deliverables spelled out in these contracts – the requirement to train Chinese postdocs in the American laboratories is made very clear.  There’s requirements to publish several papers a year in very high-impact journals and to develop intellectual property and file for patents.  There’s instructions that the Chinese institution is to be the primary affiliation in all publications.  There’s instructions to keep all of these arrangements and the work in China secret to slowly transition the lab from the U.S. to China.  And all this creates both conflicts of commitment, because people are working over 100 percent effort, and conflicts of interest.   

So basically this all boils down to types of theft.  It’s employee theft because these are not clean, legitimate recruitments.  And it’s wonderful to recruit talent globally to come to your country and bring in new ideas and new ways of thinking, but most people when they take a new job, they leave their old job.  But these employment arrangements transition people over a five-year period and including sometimes an entire U.S.-based research lab.  There is – they spend during this five years excessive time away from the U.S. laboratory, and they’re working for a competing employer during this time.   

This boils down to theft from the U.S. public because all of our NIH funding is from our taxpayers, and if we’re not – we’re not making good funding decisions about funding duplicate awards if we are unaware of other sources of duplicate funding. It’s also a theft of data from grant applications, from laboratory computers, theft of documents from laboratories, also theft of know-how.  And we’ve seen – we’ve seen identical grant applications come into the NIH that were also submitted to a Chinese funder.   

So what I’ve described here is undisclosed conflict of interest where there’s theft of proprietary information and transfer of intellectual capital or intellectual property that was created with U.S. taxpayer funds, and also undisclosed financial conflict of interest, where often companies are formed around this new IP where royalties are collected in China instead of at the U.S. institution that supported the initial part of the work.  And there’s also theft of economic development because the companies are providing economic development in China instead of in the United States.  And I’ve talked about some of the breaches in peer review and the theft of nascent ideas. 

Some of our cases have been – led to outcomes that have been put into the news media.  There was one case of an investigator at Harvard in Boston who lied to the Defense Department about their relationship with funding from the Chinese Government.  And again, lying to the government is a crime in the United States.   

On the lower left there is an example of an institution in Michigan that returned $5.5 million to the federal government because of ties – because of duplicate funding and duplicate salary support from the Chinese funders. 

The Moffitt Cancer Center fired its CEO and several other investigators because of their ties to Chinese funding.  And an ex-Emory scientist who was out of the country for roughly 60 percent of 2015 was charged with defrauding the U.S. Government for lying about ties to China. 

So currently we’re working with about 190 scientists.  They’re not all ethnically Chinese, but most of them are.  And of those 190, 154 have been confirmed to violate at least one NIH policy.  Now, this is a very small percentage of the overall number of investigators that we support, but this very small percentage is creating harm in the scientific integrity and ethics fabric, and it normalizes this behavior in a way that’s inappropriate.  So we need to make sure that we stop it. 

These individuals are located at about 87 institutions across many fields of biomedicine all over the United States.  I’ve given you some examples of case outcomes that have resulted in civil, criminal, and compliance penalties.  And we have been working very closely with other federal organizations and with our academic institutions that we fund about an awareness campaign.  We’ve been doing a lot of institutional outreach and helping them with their outreach.  Many of the institutions we support have developed policy clarifications and training programs to make sure their investigators understand what “other support” is and are really stressing a focus on transparency.  They’re encouraging, strongly encouraging their investigators to disclose all of their relationships, even if they’re not sure if they’re important to disclose.  And this has led many of the institutions that we are supporting to voluntarily disclose problems that they are now finding with some relationships with their scientists.  

And other organizations like AAU and APLU who work directly with our academic institutions across the country are getting together to help develop and share best practices for research security.   

And a good example of a federal-wide effort can be seen in this recent release of these slides on enhancing the security and integrity of America’s research enterprise, which reviews some of the experience across many federal agencies, that there’s – provides some good examples of some of those experiences in contract language, and helps us understand research integrity and ways to improve mitigating these risks while maintaining the openness of the scientific environment that we need to move scientific fields forward and improve the health of all Americans and improve the health globally of all people. 

And so with that, I want to thank you for allowing me to talk to you about some of the NIH experience, and I just want to point out that the work I presented is the work of many, many people across many organizations, including law enforcement, non-federal organizations, the State Department, the White House, and dozens and dozens of vice presidents for research and other institutional and compliance and integrity leaders at the academic institutions that we support. 

And with that, I will stop there and stop sharing my screen.  Thank you. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much, Dr. Black, for that very comprehensive overview.  I will now turn it over to Dr. Rebecca Keiser from the NSF for her presentation.   

MS KEISER:  Thank you very much, and thank you, Dr. Black.  Dr. Black and I work very closely together on these issues.  As she said on her last slide, this really is a partnership where we work together to identify what the concerns are, and then develop approaches to resolve those concerns.   

I wanted to start with a slide on international collaboration, because as Dr. Black said, our concerns are about breaches to research integrity, and that is very different from collaboration.  We support partnership, we support the transparent exchange of information and knowledge, working together, and sharing the results of that knowledge and that work together with our international partners.  And you can see here some of the data.  This is number of projects that we funded just in Fiscal Year 2019, with the top 25 partner countries.  And China is one of our strongest partners.  An example of a collaborative program that we have with the Natural Sciences Foundation of China is the ecology and evolution of infectious diseases.  We partner with NIH on this program as well, because of course we want to work together to understand and help solve the world’s problems. 

However, we have some risks, and this is in the area of research integrity.  I won’t spend a lot of time going through this, because Dr. Black, we have the same concerns: conflicts of interest and commitment, the confidentiality of the merit review process, and making sure that data before it is published is protected.  Once it’s published, it should be made open and widely disseminated, but not before.  

So we want to make sure, of course, that we maintain collaborations, first and foremost.  They are essential.  When we collaborate, we all need to work from the same principles, and these are the principles of transparency, openness, competition and reciprocity.  When we don’t have those, then we run into challenges and these breaches to research integrity. 

So we want to make sure that we balance our open environment to make sure we keep it open.  We want data that are produced to be given as widely as possible to many researchers around the world.  To protect that system, we need to focus on the science and security issues as well. 

Something we’re working on at NSF is to better understand the scale and scope of these issues.  I’ll give you some data, but we think we’re only at the beginning of our understanding.  Because so much of this is in the area of information that has not been disclosed to us but should have been disclosed to us, it’s hard for us to get at what the real scope of the issue is.  However, we know it’s out there, and we’re working with our NIH colleagues who have done a spectacular job at identifying more and more of what the issues are and the scale of those issues.  And then, of course, we want to mitigate risks and share knowledge.   

So as Dr. Black said, there is a real scope of breaches to research integrity.  Some of these breaches do fall in the realm of being illegal and are prosecuted by Department of Justice.  Some are civil issues and they’re civil lawsuits – again, by the Department of Justice.  There are also issues that our inspector general, which is independent from NSF, they find that may or may not go into the realm of being illegal, but are such concerning compliance breaches, such a concerning misuse of U.S. federal funds, that they recommend actions to NSF to take.  So far, we have taken about 25 such actions when we have found egregious behavior that has been because of improper foreign influence.   

The behavior itself, however, is duplication of NSF grants and a foreign grant.  It is overlap of time, which, as Dr. Black said, is theft of time, where they are supposed to be working on an NSF grant but they’re working on other things and didn’t disclose it to us; using NSF funding for an international project when they should not have been doing that and didn’t disclose that to us.  Those are just some of the examples of the types of things that we’ve seen.  And so far, we’ve had $4.6 million returned to us because of these actions.  And we have taken 25 of them.  We have 16 institutions of higher education or small businesses that we’ve found involved, and 15 researchers.   

We – when we find this out, we can suspend an award, we can terminate the award, and we also can debar the researcher from serving as a reviewer, panelist, or consultant.  When the cases are very, very egregious against an institution itself, there is the possibility of debarring that institution as well.  And these can be government-wide suspensions and debarments.  

So in response to these concerns that we’ve found, we’re taking actions to make sure that we have the best use of federal funds, as I showed on the previous slide.  We also created my new position as of March 2020 so that I can focus on policies to mitigate the risks.  We’ve also revised our policies on disclosure to make it as clear as possible to the community what we need to know, what other support information we need to know, what affiliations and appointments we need to understand.  And the basic answer is that all of these sources of other support, and all of these other affiliations and appointments, do need to be disclosed to us.  But we give even further clarifying language in our policy on that. 

We do have employment requirements for NSF employees and rotators at NSF that they cannot be members of the foreign talent recruitment programs that we find concerning, because they are signing contracts that have the types of clauses Dr. Black pointed to.  And we do have mandatory science and security training for our employees. 

I have a reference to the independent advisor study done by the JASON group – and there is a reference to that on my last slide – where, again, they did say that these are real issues, and that they can be put under the rubric of research integrity.  And of course, we want to make sure that we communicate as much as we can possibly with the community and with our international partners and work very closely together with the other government partners. 

So you’ll have these slides so you’ll have the references, and I’m happy to answer any questions. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Dr. Keiser.  We will now open it up to questions from our participants.  Just a reminder to please go to the chat box and raise your hand if you would like to ask a question.  You can also type your question into the chat box if you have technical difficulties.   

Yes, I see a question from Pearl Matibe, NewsDay, Zimbabwe.  Pearl, go ahead. 

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thank you very much.  Can you hear me? 

MODERATOR:  Yes, we can. 

QUESTION:  Okay.  Thank you very much for doing this presentation.  This is very alarming information that you’re sharing, so I’m very – I guess I’m still trying to absorb everything that you just said.  I’m hoping that we can have these presentations so that we can refer to them as we write our articles to make sure that we are accurate in our reporting.   

I have a couple of questions for you.  How was this first discovered?  So can you share a little bit about case zero, if you will?  And have you seen this happening anywhere else in the world?  How about, say, in Africa – South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda or Zimbabwe?  I mention some countries there because there is some research that they do and they have increasingly now ties with China in Africa.  So I want to find out if you’re seeing anything in that realm. 

And is this a fresh innovation by China?  Is this Russian-influenced?  I mean, how did China initiate this new strategy, if you will?  What’s the driver of this Chinese research transfer strategy and is it Russian-influenced?  Thank you very much. 

MS KEISER:  Jodi, do you want to start with case zero?  Because you are much – you were ahead of the curve. 

MS BLACK:  Right.  Sure.  So we were informed by law enforcement that we had a problem in our peer review system, and that’s how we learned about the strategy to manipulate peer review scores and remove grant applications from the peer review system to benefit others.  And that sort of blossomed into many more undisclosed pieces of information about foreign funding, foreign affiliations, mostly from law enforcement, so that they handed us a bunch of cases, if you will, to investigate.   

And I can tell you when they first told us we had a problem we didn’t believe them because scientists don’t behave like that.  But – and so most scientists – and I want to stress this – most scientists from anywhere, including China, do not behave like that, okay?  But these – this program, the talents program, is 10 years old and it was created to recruit talent.  I mean, that is a legitimate need.  The United States does that.  Every country does that.  And it’s supportable and it’s useful and necessary to transition ideas and new ways of doing things.  It helps move the entire world forward, but it’s – the way this program is set up is to keep too much information secret.  There’s too many clauses in the contract with requirements that don’t allow transparency and that require transitioning of information.  It’s intended to transition intellectual capital from another country into China.   

And you ask if we’re aware of whether this is happening in countries in Africa.  We believe this is happening everywhere, that the United States is a big target because we have a lot of infrastructure for research.  But anywhere there is infrastructure for research is – there’s a risk. 

MS KEISER:  I agree with Dr. Black, and we at NSF became aware of the issues as well from law enforcement and from our inspector general a bit later than NIH.  It was around the beginning of 2018.  And of course, we also were very concerned because we’re in basic research.  It’s made open.  We couldn’t understand how these could be issues.  But we did certainly find things out, as I said.   

We believe that there was a significant shift when the programs that Dr. Black was talking about changed a bit.  So the programs are about 10 years old, and starting around 2016, they shifted into allowing scientists to spend part of their time in the United States and part of their time usually in China.  Most of these programs are in China.  And at that time, I think there was a raise – a rise in concern because that allowed the researchers to basically have two employers, and many of these that we’re dealing with did not disclose their second employer to their U.S. institution and were also spending time at the international institution without also disclosing that to us or the U.S. institutions.  So that was definitely a shifting point. 

MODERATOR:  Okay.  I would like to call on Yu Jin from SINA News next for your question.  

QUESTION:  Hello.  Can you hear me?   

MS KEISER:  We can. 

QUESTION:  Oh, thank you.  This is Yu from SINA News.   

MS KEISER:  Hello. 

QUESTION:  Yes, hi.  So I had some questions.  So among all those scholars that you investigated, how many of them, they were actually intentionally hiding their ties with China to you?  Or most – is most of them – are they most of the time, just – they don’t – they are not aware of the situation?   

Also, is there a actual case where you find the illegal transfer of technology or knowledge to China other than just not disclosing their fundings with China? 

And I also want to know if you – how would you respond to some of the criticism of this – they call it purge?  They were – they would criticize this as a politically moved action and it could also be in conflicts with the – some of the spirit of universities for academic freedom and racial justice.   

So if you can answer those questions.  Thank you.  

MS BLACK:  Sure.  Do you want me to start, Rebecca, or do you —  

MS KEISER:  Sure, sure.  Go ahead, Jodi. 

MS BLACK:  So I’ll start.  I think your first question was how do we know whether people were just unaware of requirements to disclose versus outright lying.  And I can tell you that most of our cases, they initially lied about – when they were confronted, “Are you doing this,” the answer was no.  So many of the – of our cases started with a lie, and then the examples I showed you of cases that were in the news.  Charles Lieber lied.  The Emory employee lied.  They lied about their relationships.  They just got caught lying.  So we worried that people were unaware, which is why we are working closely with NSF and other academic institutions to help raise awareness, to help make sure people understand the requirements to disclose other support.  The problem is, is when we don’t know where other funding is coming from, we fund the same work.  And that’s not fair because we live in a very hypercompetitive funding environment in the United States.  We get 80,000 grant applications a year at NIH.  Our success rate is about 20 percent.  So we don’t want a duplicate fund.  We could give that to another scientist instead.  So that is a big problem. 

What we deal with is closer to the earlier stages, the more basic side of science, just like Rebecca does, Dr. Keiser.  Most of our work is in that area.  So it’s pre-patent protection.  It is not illegal to transition that.  But the problem is the technologies are patented in China, but their work, their origin was supported by U.S. taxpayer funding.  And our model for economic development in this country is to use our engines of innovation, which are our academic institutions, to make discoveries, spin them out into companies, create things that are good for the public, and create economic development and hire people.  So that entire model is broken when those early-stage technologies are transferred to another country without our knowledge. 

And we are not at all intending to be – to racially profile.  The only thing we care about is whether or not we’re making good funding decisions.  And we know we cannot do that if we don’t understand all sources of support.  And so that is our main concern.   

MS BLACK:  That’s right.  We select our research projects at NSF based on two principles only: the intellectual merit of the project and the broader impact of the research.  Is it going to have great impact?  That’s it.  We don’t pay attention to any other factors when we select.  The challenge is we can’t make those good selection decisions if something is skewed in the project, because that intellectual merit is based on ideas from someone else and not from that particular person, or if we are not confident that that person is truly – they truly do have the capacity to perform the grant because they might be spending several months a year doing something else and they’re not telling us.  We can only select 20 percent of all the proposals that are given to us to fund, and it’s just not fair to select one of those projects that is sent to us when there’s conflicts of interest or conflicts of commitment that we have not been aware of, and that takes money away from another researcher who is playing by the rules.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  I will now call on Alex from the Turan News Agency. 

QUESTION:  Yes, thank you, Jen.  Alex Raufoglu from Turan News Agency of Azerbaijan.  Dr. Black and Dr. Keiser, thank you for being here and sharing your findings.  It is alarming indeed, I agree with Pearl.  Just so we understand the elephant in the room, as they say, are we blaming our own institutions or foreign entities in terms of disclosure?  Sometimes in the countries like Azerbaijan, for foreign audiences, it’s hard to explain where illegality ends in this kind of cases, like when it comes to foreign influence, where the illegal, say, behavior starts.  You have countries such as Azerbaijan, Russia – they are able to hire scientists in this town just to make sure they have voices in the classrooms, but then you’ll see those scientists are going out and attacking U.S. institutions, including State Department, the religious body, et cetera.  So that’s why it would help if you explain us where the legality here ends and also who is to blame in this case.  

And my second question is about pandemic.  Has the pandemic affected this intersection, let’s say, between money, science, and perhaps politics?  Thank you very much.  

MS KEISER:  Sure.  I could go ahead and start on that one.  And so, who is to blame?  I think it – it’s always very challenging of course when we look at causality and blame.  What we can say is that many of these researchers who do these breaches, as Dr. Black has said, they have given false statements, right, intentionally have given false statements and have intentionally misused federal funding.  The cause often for them to do this seems to be that they signed these talent recruitment contracts that have very stringent requirements, a lot of pressure.  A lot of pressure to publish in high-level journals at a certain amount, a lot of pressure to recruit others, a lot of pressure to make sure that that – those ideas are the property of that international institution.  So that contract has been developed by the foreign government, so they’re to blame for those contracts.  The researchers are signing them, and there is a lot of intentionality there in what they’re doing in misusing federal funds.  So I think it’s hard to understand, but – and we don’t really – again, because we deal with scientists, and the majority of scientists don’t do – don’t act that way.  So we don’t know. 

As far as U.S. institutions, I think U.S. institutions are doing a very good job at understanding the issues.  We’ve been working together and NIH has been working together with the institutions so that we understand these problems more.  When they find out, the institutions, that their employees have signed a contract with someone else, certainly most of them are concerned as well.  They didn’t know.  They’re putting in better processes for disclosure themselves and to identify conflicts.  And so I think we focus on mitigating the risk rather than completely on blame.   

Dr. Black, do you want to say anything additional? 

MS BLACK:  No, I think you’ve covered all of it.   

MS KEISER:  Yeah.  

MS BLACK:  Ditto.  We agree.   

QUESTION:  On the pandemic – any insight on the pandemic and its effect? 

MS KEISER:  Ah, pandemic.  Yes, thank you.  I think like all of us, we’re extremely concerned about the impact of the pandemic on international collaboration overall because that collaboration is more challenging.  We can’t really say if there has been any impact of the pandemic on these issues themselves, and I do want to emphasize that these research integrity issues are often – well, we’re focusing on those who are at U.S. institutions, right, who are funded – because the NSF funding and the NIH funding goes to the U.S. institution, and their employees are causing these problems within the United States.  And so given that, there – we can’t really say if there’s any impact on the pandemic, but we did want to emphasize that this is those who are in the United States who are causing the issues.  

QUESTION:  Thank you.  

MODERATOR:  Okay, I would like to call on Olivia from Caixin next.  

QUESTION:  Yeah, so I’m unmuted, right?  

MODERATOR:  Yes.  

QUESTION:  Thank you so much for doing this briefing, and I have questions – or about, like – I think Dr. Black mentioned, like, the – about 190 scientists, which majority are Chinese and not all of them.  I wondered can you, like, specify, like, what are – how many are Chinese and how many are other ethnicities?  And also I wonder how does the situation influence your (inaudible), both NIH and NSF, the cooperation with China.  Also, specifically to Dr. Black, how does this influence the vaccine development cooperation on COVID-19 with China?  Thanks.  

MS BLACK:  So I’ll tell you that about 93 percent of the cases that we are currently aware of are ethnically Chinese, and the rest are something else, but they’re all U.S. citizens.  So that’s an important point.  As far as – what was your second question?  I’m sorry, I don’t remember that one.  

QUESTION:  Second question is the current – about the research security, how – does this influence our current vaccine development on COVID-19 cooperation? 

MS BLACK:  Oh, okay.  So I will tell you that the State Department has reissued our science and technology agreement, our cooperative agreement with China on behalf of the United States, so we recognize that as a very important relationship to advance science.  So I just want to stress that as a foundational point.  The NIH also has been conducting work with the National Science Foundation of China for over 10 years.  We’ve been doing basic research studies collaboratively where we agree on a research topic, and we fund the American investigators and China funds the Chinese investigators, but they work together on a single topic that both countries agree is an important problem to solve.  And so we have our own agreements with China for specific research projects.  

As far as vaccine development goes, that is a global effort.  It’s going to take the intellectual capital from around the entire country.  If you’re following the news, you know that strategies for vaccines, there’s many disparate strategies.  Many of them will work.  Some of them will work together.  But they’re coming from all over the world, and there’s global clinical trials that are being conducted, and that is a requirement in order to be able to test enough people in the briefest amount of time to get a reasonable outcome to ascertain whether or not the vaccine is both safe and effective. 

So I see this – the vaccine efforts is a global effort just like the therapeutics efforts that are in development are also global efforts, strategies originating from all over the – all over the world. 

QUESTION:  Yeah, I understand it’s, like, global.  Just wondering, like, is there – the scientists on both sides are talking with each other on research? 

MS BLACK:  It’s my understanding that this is a global conversation, a global effort. 

MODERATOR:  Okay.  I will now take a question that has been submitted via the chat box from NKH* Japan.  The question as written is, “Do you have any cases that were permitted and seen as normal activities before but are regarded as violating regulation and law now?  How do you think the impact of the U.S.-China strategic competition on the scientific cooperation?”  That’s from NKH* Japan. 

MS KEISER:  So I can start again.  And we have – everything that we are seeing, and NIH of course is seeing even more, has always been wrong.  There’s nothing that has changed.  These are always things that have not been okay.  And I think there’s an article in Nature journal that was just issued where Dr. Rita Colwell, who’s former director of NSF, said she was so surprised because she could not believe that this was happening because this has never been okay.  And I think the U.S.-China strategic competition, for us at funding agencies of science, we’re – we don’t focus on the competition.  We focus on funding the best science and making sure that the research system is the best it could be and as unbiased as it could be.  And so competition really doesn’t have anything to do with that for us.  

MODERATOR:  Okay, I have a question from Jodi with the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong.  Jodi, can you go ahead? 

QUESTION:  Hi, can you hear me? 

MODERATOR:  Yes. 

QUESTION:  Great.  Hi.  Thanks for doing this briefing.  It’s really interesting and it’s on-topic.  So my question is about Operation Warp Speed.  A couple weeks ago, General Gustave Perna, which was President Trump’s point person to help lead the operation, at a hearing – confirmation hearing – said that he’d rule out of – the possibility of working with China on research on COVID-19 vaccines.  So now I understand that Congress has allocated 10 billion of U.S. dollars to support this initiative.  Jodi, I’m trying to understand the part of the funding that NIH has in that 10 billion, if any, and how is that going to affect the funding going into different countries for this effort? 

MS BLACK:  So NIH has been allocated a small portion of that funding to help us support vaccine development, mostly through the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and through an initiative called ACTIV, A-C-T-I-V, which you can google and read about.  But they’ve also been allocated funding to develop rapid diagnostic point-of-care capabilities to ensure that underrepresented minority populations in the United States have access to any therapeutics or to understand what the – what the resistance is to their participating in therapeutics development or taking therapeutics or a vaccine.  And we have also initiatives that are developing technologies that are at various points of maturity. 

So the money is distributed for those purposes, not just vaccines but also for therapeutics development, for detection development, and for understanding who will and will not participate in vaccine trials and in detection studies, especially in our underrepresented minority populations.  So that’s what our contribution to Ward Speed is. 

MODERATOR:  Okay, I think we’re coming to possibly our last question, and I do see that Pearl Matibe has a follow-up, so I will turn it over to you, Pearl. 

QUESTION:  Thank you very much for taking the follow-up question, Dr. Black and Dr. Keiser.  I’m going to address this question to both of you.  Do you have a dollar amount of how much each of your institutions have lost?  And on the known cases, what’s the chance of reclaiming the research transferred?  And on the 190 individuals that you’re dealing with, can you break that down, disaggregate it maybe by how many of – how many institutions?  Because I’m guessing it’s 190 individuals but they may – you may have two or three from one university.  I just want to know how many academic institutions that constitutes.  Thank you very much. 

MS BLACK:  For NIH it was about 87 academic institutions, and I can tell you – so the NIH had an advisory committee to the director that has a subcommittee working on foreign influence issues, and last month there was a meeting and there’s slides that are available to the public.  But in that slide set, in that update report, that – there are about $164 million currently in total in active grants.  So – but the total support per scientist is – ranges from – for individual grants was about $678,000 is the average that each – that the grants were worth, but it ranged from 383 to 1.2 million dollars.  But in total it was about $164 million of active grants. 

Now, when you say “lost,” that’s a little more nuanced.  So it’s not clear if all of that is lost, but that’s how much money we are talking about with inappropriate disclosures associated with it.  

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Sorry, the document that you mentioned, is that available somewhere or — 

MS BLACK:  Yes, if you go to the NIH website and you look at – or you just google the advisory committee to the NIH director, and look at the June 2020 meeting, the document is available there.   

QUESTION:  Thank you very much, I appreciate that. 

QUESTION:  And Dr. Keiser? 

MS KEISER:  Yes.  So, so far, with the actions that NSF has taken – the suspension and termination of awards – it’s been 4.6 million thus far.  We were a little later to these activities than NIH, and our budget is about a quarter that of NIH’s budget.  We don’t know, again, what the multiplier effect is.  So that’s the amount that was returned.  As far as the amount of funding that may have been used in ways that we would be concerned about, it’s hard to tell.  And then, of course, we are saddened by those grant decisions that we made that were based on unfair information or inaccurate information or incomplete information.  And so that amount of money that could have been given to other researchers is very hard to tell, and I think that’s the amount that we’re really very concerned about. 

MS BLACK:  Yeah, us too. 

MS KEISER:  Mm-hmm. 

MS BLACK:  $164 million could have gone to other investigators who are at risk of losing all funding. 

MS KEISER:  Yes. 

MS BLACK:  And that is something we all worry about. 

QUESTION:  Thank you very much.  I appreciate both of you. 

MS KEISER:  Sure. 

MODERATOR:  Okay.  With that, unfortunately, we have run out of time for additional questions, but I do want to express our appreciation and thanks to Dr. Black and Dr. Rebecca Keiser for this very useful, timely, and important conversation about research security.  We will make the slides available to all the participants.  This briefing has been on the record and a transcript and video will also be posted on our website.  So that’s all for today, and thank you very much. 

MS BLACK:  Thank you. 

QUESTION:  Thank you. 

MS BLACK:  Bye-bye. 

MS KEISER:  Bye. 

 

U.S. Department of State

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