New NIH Report Shows Rampant Chinese Funding in American Research

David Acevedo

Editor's Note: This article was originally published under the name "John David," the former pseudonym of NAS Communications & Research Associate David Acevedo. To learn more about why David no longer writes under this name, click here.

Earlier this month, National Association of Scholars Policy Director Rachelle Peterson reported that “The National Institutes of Health has been investigating [over] 180 researchers at 65 American colleges and universities for unlawful participation in the Thousand Talents Plan and theft of research.” These are individuals with suspected involvement in “troubling foreign influence on extramural research, including withholding information about funding sources and conflicts of interests and violating the confidentiality of peer review,” according to NIH deputy director for extramural research Dr. Michael Lauer. 

On top of the 189 researchers currently under investigation, an additional 210 have been flagged for “possible concern” of violations.

For an overview of the Thousand Talents Plan (TTP), read this article from February, in which I explain key aspects of the program in light of the arrest of Dr. Charles Lieber (a Harvard chemist who has since been indicted). Lieber’s case, though perhaps the most well-known, is far from alone. NAS is tracking the professors, students, and administrators of American colleges and universities who have been charged for crimes relating to illegal ties to China. So far, we list thirteen individuals, including eight Chinese nationals, two American citizens, and three unidentified professors. 

Thirteen researchers is thirteen too many. But this number is likely to increase dramatically in the coming months.

According to a June 12, 2020 report by Dr. Lauer, 54 of 189 (29%) researchers investigated have been fired or resigned as a result of NIH’s findings, including Charles Lieber. The report also lists the following statistics about those investigated:

  • 175 (93%) received foreign funding from China.

  • 133 (70%) received an undisclosed foreign grant(s) and 102 (54%) received an undisclosed talent award(s).

  • 17 (19%) owned a foreign company and 7 (4%) held foreign patents.

  • 154 (81%) violated NIH research policies and 70 (37%) violated their own institution’s  rules.

  • 100 (53%) have been peer-reviewed in the last two years.

  • The average demographic of suspects investigated is Asian males 56 years old.*

*As Dr. Michael Lauer clarifies, “This is not xenophobic racism, this is not targeting and this is not stigma. This is real theft” of research. NIH is not investigating Asians because they are Asian, but rather because China is by far the worst offender in undisclosed foreign gifts. Chinese nationals working in America are the most common target for TTP and other talent program awards.

Here are some numbers on the NIH money (read: taxpayer dollars) involved:

  • 143 (76%) of scientists held at least one active NIH grant; 77 (41%) held two or more.

  • Those investigated held an average of $678,000 each of NIH grants. That comes out to $164 million of taxpayer money.

Lastly, here’s what we know about the institutions contacted as part of NIH’s investigation:

  • 87 institutions in 27 states have been contacted regarding one or more researchers.

  • 62 (71%) acknowledge non-compliance with current foreign gift disclosure regulations.

  • 49 (56%) had institutional rules violated by scientists.

  • 47 (54%) showed interest in new measures for foreign gift transparency.

These statistics, while alarming, are ultimately unsurprising and speak volumes to the profound lack of foreign gift transparency within American higher education. That hundreds, perhaps thousands, of American researchers have secret ties to foreign governments is a dire threat to national security.

Fortunately, the federal government has taken notice and is taking action. Through continued investigation by the NIH and the FBI, as well strengthened federal regulations, true transparency and honesty may be restored to American colleges and universities. In the meantime, NAS will continue to bring you major developments as they come.

John David is Communications & Administrative Associate at the National Association of Scholars.

Image: Public Domain

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