Top U.S. science funder says it is swamped by investigations of foreign influence on grantees

The in-house watchdog at the National Science Foundation says her office is unable to keep up with investigating the soaring number of allegations that grantees have ignored rules requiring them to disclose support from China and other countries when seeking NSF funding.

“These cases [of foreign influence] now make up 63% of our caseload … we don’t have the resources we need to investigate these allegations,” NSF Inspector General Allison Lerner told the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives this week at a hearing on how to preserve research security without jeopardizing international scientific collaborations.

In her written testimony, Lerner reported that NSF has recovered $7.9 million from 23 grantees, at 21 institutions, who it found violated the agency’s disclosure rules. NSF also imposed a range of sanctions on the researchers. All but one of the cases involve an award to a scientist with links to China.

Lerner and NSF won’t say how many foreign influence cases it is now investigating. But an analysis by ScienceInsider of publicly available data suggests there could be as many as 80.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the largest funder of U.S. biomedical research, has led federal research agencies in pursuing the government’s 3-year-old China Initiative, which was spurred by concerns that China is stealing the fruits of U.S.-funded research. NIH has tagged 540 scientists as possible violators of its disclosure rules and asked 95 institutions to further investigate the behavior of 222 scientists on their payrolls.

In contrast, Lerner told legislators her 20-person investigations unit at NSF—the largest U.S. funder of nonbiomedical research—“can only mount a reactive response to this challenge.” Asked what it would take to enable NSF to deal with all of the allegations it has received, Lerner said doubling the size of the unit, as one legislator suggested, “would be a good start.”

Lerner says foreign influence concerns first came to her office’s attention in late 2017 and have since mushroomed. Although she declined to provide specific numbers, it’s possible to get a sense of the magnitude of the problem from a report Lerner files every 6 months on the office’s activities. The most recent semiannual report, released in May, said there were 131 active investigations. It also notes that the inspector general’s office opened 31 cases in the 6-month period ending on 31 March and closed 38 cases during that same period. Applying her 63% figure would suggest NSF has roughly 80 active investigations involving foreign influence.

The updated data on foreign influences come from an 18 August letter to FBI from Rebecca Keiser, NSF’s chief of research security strategy and policy, that Lerner appended to her testimony at the 5 October science committee hearing. Keiser that, since 2019, NSF had taken a total of 30 “actions” against scientists and institutions “associated with foreign talent recruitment programs or organizations receiving foreign funding” who were found to have violated NSF’s disclosure policy.

Those actions include suspending 24 awards and terminating 16. (In some instances, the award was reinstated after the grant was reassigned to another scientist at the same institution, whereas in others an award was terminated without first being suspended.) A total of nine researchers have been banned from receiving federal grants, including five who agreed to a “voluntary exclusion” after NSF told them of their pending debarment. (The average debarment runs for 3 years.) In addition, five scientists have been stricken from NSF’s roster of those who review grant applications from other scientists.

Asked how many of the scientists are of Chinese descent, an NSF spokesperson said, “We do not track the demographics of the researchers involved.” But, the spokesperson says, “Only two of the 30 actions (a suspension of an award and then its termination) involved countries other than China.”  

A clash of cultures

Keiser’s letter reflects the increased communication between NSF and FBI over foreign influences in U.S. academic research. Lerner didn’t dispute a claim by Representative Michael Waltz (R–FL) that the number of FBI queries to NSF has risen 1000-fold, which Waltz said was a response to “a massive growth in scale” of Chinese efforts to gain improper access to U.S.-funded research.

Another witness, Maria Zuber, vice president for research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told legislators she agrees with the need for greater vigilance. “China should not be allowed to pay U.S. scientists to transfer research to China,” she said.

But Zuber also warned that building stronger ties between FBI and the U.S. academic community will require bridging a gap between different cultures. “It’s a work in progress,” says Zuber, who co-chairs a research security roundtable at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. “What would really help is greater mutual understanding on how each sector works. … Academics are a data-driven community and they want to see evidence,” she explained, whereas law enforcement agencies “tend to keep things secret until there is an actual prosecution.”

Although universities have beefed up their efforts to monitor foreign influences at their institutions, Zuber added, they aren’t equipped to do their own vetting of scientists who fail to disclose foreign ties. “We aren’t investigative bodies and don’t have the capacity of agencies like the [NSF inspector general],” she told the legislators. “We want our faculty to comply, and our faculty want to comply. … But if somebody isn’t coming clean, then we just don’t have a way to know that.”

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