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U.S. universities reassess collaborations with foreign scientists in wake of NIH letters

The main campus of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas

Baylor College of Medicine

By Jeffrey Mervis

Adam Kuspa tries to anticipate queries from his institution’s largest source of research funding, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. “We like to tell NIH things before they ask us,” says Kuspa, senior vice president and dean of research at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) in Houston, Texas.

In August 2018, NIH Director Francis Collins asked BCM and thousands of other institutions to be more vigilant in defending the U.S. research enterprise against efforts by unscrupulous foreign governments to steal ideas and technology. Kuspa had just attended a classified Federal Bureau of Investigation briefing on the topic for Houston-area academic leaders and figured the issue was heating up. So he ordered up an audit of the foreign affiliations of every BCM faculty member with current NIH funding. The review, which won’t be finished until the end of the year, has meant poking into the professional lives of roughly 500 of the college’s 3500 scientists.

 But Kuspa’s attempt to stay ahead of NIH came to naught. A few months into the audit, BCM received letters from NIH asking about four scientists it believed had violated the agency’s rule requiring them to disclose all foreign ties relating to their research.

BCM wasn’t being singled out. Earlier this month, Collins told Congress that similar NIH letters had spawned investigations at more than 55 institutions. And BCM’s next-door neighbor, the MD Anderson Cancer Center, moved to fire three faculty members this month after NIH notified it of potentially “serious violations” by five faculty members, including sharing confidential grant applications and failing to report foreign funding and business ties. (MD Anderson had already suspended at least one of the scientists named by NIH after an investigation still underway.)

BCM investigated the three faculty members named by NIH in the 29 November letters. “Each of the three had appointments at Chinese universities that Baylor knew about, but they were not always reported properly,” Kuspa explains, noting the three were born in China and are now naturalized U.S. citizens. “Two of the three held grants from the Chinese government that were not disclosed properly and did not undergo the required review by Baylor for research conflict of interest.”

After completing the review, Kuspa says, Baylor decided none should be disciplined. Instead, he says, Baylor notified NIH that it has corrected the record by making sure all of their foreign affiliations are listed in the biosketch that accompanies every federal grant application, as well as the annual progress reports that grantees file with funding agencies, and in any publication stemming from the NIH-funded research. It has also tweaked its internal procedures to flag any grant proposal with a foreign component. The aim is to make sure the proposal has been thoroughly vetted—NIH requires researchers to explain why they need to work with a foreign partner—before being submitted.

It’s impossible to know where MD Anderson and BCM fit along a continuum of institutional responses to the NIH letters. No other institution that ScienceInsider has contacted has been willing to discuss its response to the NIH letters flagging individual faculty members; most won’t even confirm they received any letters.

This email response from the research chief at one major research university is illustrative: “We are in the middle of the investigation … and currently weighing the various options. We take foreign influence seriously but want our response to be measured and well thought out.”

Working in the dark

The relatively mild nature of the violations at BCM may have made Kuspa more willing to talk about them publicly. “We have not seen any evidence of malice afterthought or attempts to acquire intellectual property or act inappropriately,” he says about the four researchers. “And we weren’t asked to investigate any of that.”

At the same time, Kuspa says, BCM hasn’t simply gone back to business as usual. The NIH letters, he says, have revealed how hard it is for an institution to monitor the foreign ties of its researchers and the extent of its ignorance.

“We wanted to do this audit in a way that would not harm international collaborations, which everyone agrees are a good thing in biomedical research,” Kuspa says. “And the first step is to describe what collaborations exist.”

To do that, BCM administrators have relied on faculty members and their department chairs. “To be honest,” he says, “we have no way of knowing about some of these affiliations unless they tell us.” That dependency has prompted the medical school to consider several steps that would alter how its faculty members interact with colleagues around the world.

One major change under consideration would eliminate dual appointments, that is, allowing faculty to operate a second lab at another institution. Such arrangements, which are not unusual, reflect the global nature of science, Kuspa acknowledges. They allow institutions to tap into expertise not available on the home campus, strengthen international ties, and, when located in a developing country, help build global capacity.

Stretched too thin?

But such dual connections have become a lightning rod for those who warn that foreign countries are trying to steal U.S. technologies developed in part by federally funded grants to university scientists. One highly visible target has been China’s Thousand Talents program, a decadelong effort to build ties with ethnic Chinese researchers working outside of China by offering them research support, salaries, and other perks. One common Thousand Talents arrangement involves the faculty member spending a few months a year in China while retaining their position in the United States.

“We’ve done that in the past,” says Kuspa, recalling a handful of such arrangements he approved as chairman of the medical school’s biochemistry department. But the political winds have shifted, he says, and he thinks the practice is no longer viable.

“Independent of NIH’s growing concern [about foreign affiliations],” says Kuspa, “it’s become increasing obvious that it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to oversee research by faculty members being carried out at another institution, especially one that is overseas. So going forward, we’re doing to discourage those sorts of interactions. And for legacy agreements, we’re thinking hard [about] whether to renew them, and we probably won’t.”

Kuspa scoffs at the notion that the new policy would hinder a faculty member’s productivity, or the quality of the science being conducted. “No, I’m not worried, because they can still collaborate,” he says. “That second lab is generally based on having a good relationship with an individual in another department or at another institution. So why not just collaborate?”

“And I’m not talking about just the Thousand Talents program or even a laboratory in China,” he says. “Imagine if I had to investigate one of my faculty members for an allegation of scientific misconduct? I would have no standing, as Baylor’s official representative, in [a different] country.”

BCM does not currently have a policy barring dual appointments, Kuspa emphasizes. “If somebody wanted to make an argument for a second appointment, we’d look into it,” he says. “But I think the bar has been raised.”

In defense of partnerships

Lars Steinmetz cites his own scientific career to make the case for the benefits of dual appointments. The biophysicist now holds dual, tenured appointments at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany, meaning he is simultaneously running two sizable laboratories on two continents. He spends 3 weeks at each lab, and every Monday—at 8 a.m. Pacific time and 5 p.m. German time—he leads a 2-hour group videoconference from wherever he happens to be.

Despite that peripatetic travel schedule, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’ve asked myself that question for 15 years, because it requires a big commitment in terms of time and travel,” he says. “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think that there are a lot of advantages, scientifically. It enables us to do things we otherwise wouldn’t be able to do [with a single lab]. So I wouldn’t want to give it up.”

In fact, Steinmetz has decided to double down on the arrangement. He’s lined up funding from a private foundation to launch a combined postdoctoral program this summer at the two institutions as part of the Life Science Alliance he directs. More than three dozen Stanford and EMBL faculty members have already agreed to provide lab space for what he calls “high-risk, high-reward” projects pitched by the newly minted Ph.D.s. “I think that’s a pretty good sign that they see the benefits of working with scientists at another institution,” he says.

Science truly has no borders for Steinmetz, who joined EMBL in 2003 and was hired by Stanford in 2013, where he had retained a small lab after earning his Ph.D. in 2001. This month, he published a paper in collaboration with a team of Chinese scientists, one of whom has been a scientific partner for more than a decade. “They had already done the experiments and they wanted help in interpreting the data,” he says about the work, which documented that using the gene-editing tool CRISPR in mouse embryos yielded a surprisingly high number of off-target mutations.

His principal collaborator, Wu Wei, has a similarly international pedigree. Wei had contacted Steinmetz as a graduate student in China and did a postdoc with Steinmetz at EMBL before working in Steinmetz’s lab as a staff scientist at Stanford. Now, he’s a professor at the Partner Institute for Computational Biology in Shanghai, China, a joint effort between the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Max Planck Institute. Wei moved there last year with the help of a grant from the Thousand Talents program.

The collaborative work was carried out and published within 9 months, Steinmetz says, “an example of how well things can go if you take advantage of who’s out there. Of course, everyone has a network. But the larger the network, the easier it is to find the right partner.”

Massachusetts Institute of Technology takes a closer look

At a time when every foreign research collaboration attracts added scrutiny, however, it can be difficult to find the right partner. The environment has become so fraught that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge recently announced a new three-step process for evaluating the “elevated risk” of any projects involving China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Unlike in the case of BCM and MD Anderson, its actions appear to be motivated by a desire to cushion itself from outside criticism rather than to forestall some type of government intervention.

In a 3 April letter to the MIT community, Associate Provost Richard Lester and Vice President for Research Maria Zuber describe the new approach as a way “to engage the world effectively, with responsible management of risks and in keeping with the values of our community.” The letter also contained the news that MIT will strike no new research deals with two Chinese high-tech companies, Huawei and ZTE.

(The U.S. government has accused Huawei of stealing intellectual property and lying about its compliance with U.S. trade and financial sanctions against Iran. Last summer, the government lifted its ban on U.S. companies selling to ZTE after the company pleaded guilty to violating the trade sanctions. In February, MIT President Rafael Reif condemned the Saudi government’s reaction to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi but said it would continue to accept funding from Saudi entities.)

Under the new MIT policy, any proposed collaboration with the three named countries would be vetted by a team of university managers familiar with federal laws and regulations governing interactions with foreign parties. If questions remain, the project would be passed along to Lester. He would then decide whether it should be reviewed by a faculty-led standing committee on international engagement or a “senior risk group” consisting of himself, Zuber, and the MIT general counsel.

Zuber declined to discuss the rationale for the new procedures and said it was too early to measure its impact. But she told The Tech, MIT’s campus-based newspaper, that the new procedures are meant “to let our researchers feel comfortable and provide them with some cover in case anything goes wrong.”

MIT has said it has not received any letters from NIH asking about individual faculty members, and Zuber told The Tech that “no one in the government said that they were threatening our funding.” She called the new procedures a way of “taking care of our institution and our researchers.”

Part of the job

Kuspa isn’t surprised that NIH found instances in which foreign ties were not reported to the agency. “It’s easy to find inconsistencies,” he says. “Anybody can do it. … If you have access to what we submit to NIH, all you have to do is look at the resulting publications by that PI [principal investigator] or from that grant,” and then flag any affiliations cited in the publications that were not reported to NIH.

Kuspa hopes the ongoing audit will help BCM switch from playing defense to offense, a position he much prefers. “I have no idea how they selected those four [researchers]. But I can tell you we would have come up with those four as part of our audit.”

Given the increased scrutiny, Kuspa thinks BCM may get additional letters in the months to come. But he’s not worried.

“We have all sorts of accreditation bodies and oversight bodies, and they are always asking questions,” he says. “And we respond. In research administration, this is what we do every day.”

Source: Science Mag