NSF's handful of foreign influence cases may be due to how it investigates them

The National Science Foundation’s new numbers pale next to what the National Institutes of Health has reported

NSF headquarters
The National Science Foundation has disciplined 16 scientists for failing to disclose foreign ties.Maria B. Barnes/NSF

Last week, Ohio State University (OSU), Columbus, immunologist Song Guo Zheng became the latest addition to a growing roster of U.S. academic scientists accused of helping China illegally harvest the fruits of federally funded research. Like Zheng, who has been charged by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) with grant fraud, almost all the cases involve scientists funded by the $42 billion National Institutes of Health (NIH), which in the past 2 years has aggressively investigated grantees it believes have failed to disclose support from foreign governments.

In contrast, scientists with grants from the $8 billion National Science Foundation (NSF), the nation's second largest funder of academic research, have rarely made the news. That silence correlates with newly released data showing the tiny number of NSF-funded scientists who the agency determined had violated its policies.

For example, NSF officials told Nature last week that the agency has taken disciplinary action against 16 grantees in the past 2 years. By comparison, 189 NIH-funded scientists have been sanctioned by the agency or their employer. There's also a big difference in the severity of their punishment: Some 77 investigators have been blocked from applying for a new NIH grant, whereas NSF has barred only four scientists.

The detectives

Those ratios are much larger than the fivefold difference in the two agencies' budgets. So what accounts for the huge disparity?

There is no reason to assume the Chinese government is more interested in getting its hands on cutting-edge biomedical research than advances in other areas, including engineering and computer science, two fields in which NSF dominates the academic research landscape. And nobody has suggested NIH-funded scientists are inherently more likely than their NSF counterparts to be lured by promises of lavish research support from foreign governments, like the talent recruit programs that Chinese institutions have been operating for the past decade.

One obvious explanation is the aggressive campaign launched by the biomedical research agency in 2018 to identify grantees who didn't disclose their ties to foreign entities, almost all of them Chinese institutions. To do so, NIH created its own investigative team within the director's office, led by Deputy Director for Extramural Research Michael Lauer.

That team has pored through thousands of scientific papers and research databases looking for acknowledgments of foreign grant support or dual appointments by the scientists it has funded. The search has netted nearly 200 suspects. Armed with that information, NIH then asks their employers to probe further and report back.

That is apparently what happened with Zheng. According to DOJ documents, OSU had received such a letter and on 13 May asked Zheng for more information about his relationship with Sun Yat-sen University and its hospital in Guangzhou, China. Barely 1 week later, Zheng was arrested in Alaska before boarding a flight to China.

The government says Zheng had failed to disclose his extensive research support from China in the process of winning $4.3 million in NIH grants, and charged him with grant fraud and making false statements. He remains in prison in Ohio after a federal judge deemed him a flight risk.

In contrast to NIH's in-house team of research administrators turned detectives, NSF has relied on its quasi-independent Office of Inspector General (OIG) to pursue any allegations of wrongdoing. The NSF OIG, part of a network across the federal government, is responsible for investigating all manner of waste, fraud, and abuse at the agency, and follows different procedures from what NIH has deployed.

"We have not been proactive like NIH," says NSF's Rebecca Keiser, who in March became head of research security strategy, a new position. Keiser's job is to advise the NSF director on how to balance security and openness in science.

NSF gets information about possible violations of its policies from many sources, says Keiser, who spoke with Science last week. They include FBI and grantee institutions themselves. (Keiser didn't provide any details, but Lauer said last month that FBI supplied initial information on some 30% of the 400 scientists that NIH has investigated, and that 11% of its cases were flagged by grantee institutions.)

Although "we talk with the OIG on a regular basis," Keiser says, any information NSF receives is passed along to the inspector general, who decides which allegations are serious enough to warrant a full investigation. OIG may request information from a grantee institution in the course of an inquiry, Keiser notes, but institutions are not asked to conduct their own investigation. When OIG feels it has gathered all the facts, it submits a report to NSF with recommendations for how the agency should deal with any violations it has found, along with suggested sanctions.

The results

The issue of foreign influences has been on NSF's radar since early in 2018, Keiser says. "The FBI told the OIG about its concerns in late 2017, and the OIG told NSF right after the holidays," she says.

But unlike NIH officials, who have released an extensive analysis of their activities, Keiser can offer only a partial view of what NSF has done since then. For example, Keiser said she has no idea how many investigations OIG has opened into the possible failure to disclose foreign ties, nor how many allegations were dropped because of a lack of evidence. OIG also doesn't discuss ongoing investigations, and it won't say how many cases it has sent to DOJ for possible civil or criminal charges.

What Keiser can provide is a partial tally of actions NSF has taken. The 16 scientists had all violated NSF's rules regarding research integrity, she explains. Of those, 10 were removed from being the principal investigator on the grant, and two were suspended from being PI on any award from the federal government. In addition, four scientists have been prohibited from applying for any federal grant for an undisclosed length of time. Such debarments generally last up to 3 years.

None of those decisions has been appealed, Keiser says. "The OIG does a lot of work and builds up quite the case file," she says. "So, in every case, once we've presented them with all the evidence, the institutions have agreed with the recommendations [for sanctions]."

Of the 20 grants affected by NSF's actions, eight were terminated. NSF has recovered $4.6 million from those institutions, which officially are the grant recipient. (That figure represents what was remaining on the 10 affected grants, Keiser notes, not the total amount of money awarded.)

Some 54 scientists have been fired by their institutions in the wake of the NIH investigations, Lauer said last month. Keiser said she has no information on how many, if any, scientists have lost their jobs as a result of what NSF has found, calling such steps "personnel actions" that are the purview of the grantee institution.

Neither Keiser nor OIG would provide a breakout of the type of research that the sanctioned scientists were conducting. NSF has seven directorates that fund nonmedical research across the natural and physical sciences, engineering, and education.

Keiser also declined to provide demographic information on the offenders. "Every one of them is a U.S. citizen," she said, although she said she cannot say how many are of Asian descent because the investigator's race, ethnicity, and gender are not listed on the grant. Keiser did say that "all but two" of the 16 cases involved attempts at "improper influence by a Chinese entity."

The outlook

Neither NSF nor NIH has a crystal ball that can forecast whether the problem is getting better or worse. Lauer told Science last month that NIH learned about 150 new cases in the past year, but says he has "no idea" whether his caseload has peaked.

Keiser says eight institutions have told NSF about possible violations by faculty members since she assumed her new position in March. (She had previously been head of NSF's office of international programs.) Although she sees those self-reported cases as a sign that the academic research community is taking the matter seriously, she admits that she doesn't know the extent of the problem.

"If we find violators, we will take action against them," she says. "But I think that most investigators play by the rules. Even if the number [of cases] goes up, I think that it will remain relatively small."

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