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Conflicts over scale, response to foreign threats and espionage against NIH research at Senate hearing

Senators disagree about Chinese threat to U.S. biomedical research

A June 5 Senate Finance Committee hearing saw sparks fly over allegations of spying, with two Republican senators accusing the Chinese government of engaging in large-scale espionage against U.S. taxpayer-funded research, and a Democrat countering that President Donald Trump’s policies are a bigger threat to national security than Chinese scientists.

Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the Finance Committee chairman, and John Cornyn (R-Texas) claimed that some NIH-funded Chinese scientists are advancing their government’s plans to achieve global economic and military dominance.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) argued that the foreign threat is exaggerated, and said the Trump administration’s requests to cut the NIH budget pose a greater threat to scientific progress than espionage.

Cornyn’s position is that foreign threats, including the illegal diversion of intellectual property, are so serious that continued research funding should be tied to strengthened commitments to enhance safeguards.

“Some researchers are spies.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley

He said he would “not be able to vote in good conscience for any taxpayer dollars to be used for research at public institutions unless these institutions up their game significantly, and can give us some confidence that those taxpayer dollars are not only being well spent on research and development, but that that research information is not being stolen right under our nose.”

But Wyden slammed the administration’s position as the greater evil.

“The quickest way to turn the lights out in health research laboratories across America would be to enact the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts to NIH,” said Wyden at the meeting.

“When you take the broader view of threats to research in America, it’s clear the biggest danger comes from within, especially with an administration that often takes anti-science positions,” he added.

An HHS national security official said at the hearing that the agency has been involved over the last year in “several dozen” reviews by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) of foreign investments in U.S. healthcare companies. He did not indicate what countries were involved.

Cornyn said he will introduce legislation next week, the Secure Our Research Act, that will “establish an inter-agency working group to develop an agency-wide compliance framework to enhance cyber security protocols and protect federally funded research from foreign interference, espionage and exfiltration.”

Similar legislation, the Securing American Science and Technology Act of 2019 (H.R. 3038) was introduced in the House on May 30. The bipartisan bill, co-sponsored by Reps. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.), Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio), Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), and Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), creates an interagency working group of science, intelligence, and security agencies to evaluate foreign threats to American research and develop a policy framework to enhance security.

Areas of concern

No specific instances of malfeasance by foreign countries or their citizens were discussed at the hearing.

The FBI declined numerous invitations to participate in the hearing, Grassley reported.

Trump administration officials refused in a public session to respond directly to Wyden’s requests to quantify the scale of the foreign threat to research. They committed to providing answers in a private briefing that was scheduled after the conclusion of the public hearing.

Grassley was blunt about the threats posed by foreign countries, as well as their tactics.

“Some researchers are spies and their only purpose is to infiltrate taxpayer-funded research projects to steal intellectual property and bring it to their home country,” he said.

The Iowa senator also asserted that there have been instances in which peer reviewers have “shared confidential information from grant applications with foreign governments which would allow them to potentially skip research steps.” He added: “Some have also attempted to influence funding decisions, undermining the integrity of taxpayer-funded research.”

Lawrence Tabak, NIH principal deputy director, reported that the numbers of cases in which NIH has requested that grantee institutions investigate possible illegal foreign activities is “relatively small, but the problem is important.” NIH, Tabak said, is working on the issue with 61 institutions. He predicted that the number “will undoubtedly increase as we learn more.”

“While we have taken bold and concrete steps to bolster research integrity and neutralize foreign threats against U.S. biomedical research, we remain conscious of how these actions could affect the morale of honest and dedicated foreign researchers,” Tabak said in written testimony. He added that “NIH reviews have identified concerns involving individuals who are not of Chinese ethnicity.”

NIH has three areas of concern about foreign threats, Tabak said.

The agency is focusing on the failures by some researchers to “disclose substantial contributions of resources from other organizations, including foreign governments.” He said lapses in disclosures threaten to “distort decisions about the appropriate use of NIH funds.”

A second area of concern for NIH is “diversion of proprietary information included in grant applications or produced by NIH-supported biomedical research to other entities, including other countries.”

NIH, Tabak said, is also concerned by the “failure by some peer reviewers to keep information in grant applications confidential; including, in some instances, disclosure to foreign entities or other attempts to influence funding decisions.”

Focus on China, CFIUS

The hearing was ostensibly about all foreign threats, but it focused almost exclusively on China.

Grassley called China “by far the most prolific offender,” and added that it isn’t the “only country acting against our interests.”

“It’s without dispute that China has focused its energy on leveraging our hard work for their benefit--and to our detriment,” Grassley said. He added: “Whether we’re talking about Confucius Institutes spreading propaganda on college campuses, China’s ‘Talent Programs’ that have been called ‘brain gain’ programs, or China planting spies in our industry, the government of China is a serious problem.”

Cornyn put his concerns about threats to research in the broader context of geopolitical tensions. “China’s aggressive plan to dominate the United States economically, militarily and technologically includes the willingness to use whatever means are necessary, legal or not, overt or covert, to achieve its goals.”

“Targeting Americans who happen to be descendants of recent immigrants is as bone-headed as it gets.”

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said at the hearing that investments by Chinese companies in U.S. healthcare companies pose risks to individual Americans and to national security. “The Chinese government has been active in obtaining access to healthcare and genomic data on U.S. persons which not only allows them to drive new discoveries by analyzing large datasets, but also creates risks of blackmail and potential exploitation.”

Daines asked the Trump administration witnesses at the hearing how the government is responding to this risk.

Michael Schmoyer, HHS Assistant Deputy Secretary for National Security said HHS is a “very active partner in the CFIUS process.”

Schmoyer said that over the last year HHS been investigating foreign acquisitions as part of “several dozen” CFIUS cases to “determine whether or not there’s a potential risk to national security.”

CFIUS forced a Chinese company to sell its stakes in PatientsLikeMe, an online platform for patients to share health information, and prevented a Chinese investment in Momenta Pharmaceuticals Inc. (see “CFIUS Drawing Line In Sand On Personal Data,” and “CFIUS influence May Have Prompted Momenta's Restructuring”).

In February, 2019, the HHS Office of Inspector General issued a report recommending that NIH strengthen controls over permitting foreign researchers from accessing genomic data. NIH, however, does not agree with the recommendations, Tabak said at the Finance Committee hearing.

NIH believes that the OIG’s claims that “by sharing human genomic data we were putting the nation at risk” were “based on speculation that was not substantiated,” Tabak said.

Calls to protect international collaboration

Demands for tightening security and increasing vetting of foreign scientists were balanced at the hearing by statements stressing the value to the U.S. of international collaboration.

“Many recent scientific advances, such as sequencing the human genome, or the development of the gene-editing tool kit known as CRISPR-Cas were predicated upon international collaborations,” Tabak said. “Since 2000, 39% of U.S. Nobel prizes in physics, chemistry, and medicine have been awarded to foreign-born scientists.”

“We run the risk of stifling innovation whenever we constrain interactions.”

Joe Gray, Oregon Health & Science University

Wyden cautioned that “overreaching with barriers that turn away bright students or cut off lines of communication with scientists from other countries would do a lot more harm than good.” He added that “targeting Americans who happen to be descendants of recent immigrants is as bone-headed as it gets.”

Joe Gray, associate director for biophysical oncology at the Oregon Health & Science University’s Knight Cancer Institute, cautioned that actions intended to counter foreign threats to U.S.-funded research could be counter-productive.

“We run the risk of stifling innovation whenever we constrain interactions” among scientists, including those between U.S. and foreign scientists, Gray said. He said that “innovative solutions to the complex problems we are trying to solve throughout the biomedical community today will occur most rapidly through the free and open exchange of information and ideas, including with a broad range of foreign nationals.”

Additional requirements regulating interactions with foreign nationals will cause some U.S. scientists to avoid such interactions, Gray predicted. “This will significantly diminish innovation within the United States.”

Gray pushed back against Grassley’s suggestions that the U.S. should beef up vetting of foreign scientists. “The issue of whether or not we should impose additional vetting is a difficult one because the process of doing this vetting in essence stigmatizes the whole community that is being vetted, and in so doing that it decreases their enthusiasm for coming to the United States to work with us to advance our scientific ideas,” Gray said.

He also warned against acting aggressively against researchers who fail to disclose all foreign funding.

Because the rules are changing and there is uncertainty about requirements, Gray said he wouldn’t fire a researcher who failed to disclose foreign financing unless there was evidence the researcher was engaged in “some nefarious activity.”

Companies and Institutions Mentioned

Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, Ore.

Momenta Pharmaceuticals Inc. (NASDAQ:MNTA), Cambridge, Mass.

PatientsLikeMe Inc., Cambridge, Mass.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Washington, D.C.

U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), Bethesda, Md.

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