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  • Washington Highlights

    Senate HELP Committee Holds Hearing on Foreign Influence in Biomedical Research

    Christa Wagner, Manager, Government Relations

    NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Michael Lauer, MD, testified on the NIH’s efforts to combat foreign influence in biomedical research in an April 22 hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

    Lauer testified that the NIH’s main areas of concern regarding foreign government influence on the NIH research enterprise are the failure of researchers to disclose outside funding from other organizations or foreign governments, “diversion of proprietary information included in grant applications or produced by NIH-supported biomedical research to other entities,” and a breach of confidentiality in the peer review system. “As of April 2021, we have contacted more than 90 awardee institutions regarding concerns involving over 200 scientists,” he stated.

    Lauer reviewed the NIH’s actions to prevent these security issues, which include proactively addressing the research community, working with other federal research agencies through the Office of Science and Technology Policy to coordinate resources for grantees, and collaborating with national security agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of National Security (ONS) and Office of Inspector General.

    “The individuals violating laws and policies represent a small proportion of scientists working in and with U.S. institutions. We must ensure that our responses to this issue do not create a hostile environment for colleagues who are deeply dedicated to advancing human health through scientific inquiry,” Lauer explained.

    “Global collaboration is critical in biomedical research; talented researchers from around the world have played a key role in some of the major breakthroughs our country has made,” HELP Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said in her opening statement. “But successful collaboration requires trust, and trust requires transparency. It’s important that researchers with foreign affiliations and potential conflicts of interest … fully disclose those issues when applying for federal grants,” she added.

    In his opening statement, Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-N.C.) acknowledged the efforts the NIH and the HHS have taken to address the threats from foreign adversaries, as well as the importance of global collaborations. He added, however, that the activities of foreign governments to exploit U.S. biomedical research “means that our enemies can capitalize on the billions of dollars that American taxpayers invest every year to beat us to the punch on the next game-changing technology to save lives or to cause unimaginable harm.”

    “Innovation is a global race, and competition is good for innovation. So, we must think about how to foster greater innovation at home, mitigate potential risks associated with foreign influence, and maintain our edge,” Burr stated.

    ONS Acting Director Lisa Aguirre, JD, testified that “ONS’ counterintelligence mission is to conduct activities to identify, detect, deter, neutralize, mitigate and protect Department personnel, information technology systems, and critical assets from insider threats, foreign intelligence entities, and foreign influence. While not pervasive, some foreign government actors target top scientific and technical expertise sectors in the United States in an effort to enhance their competitive advantage in the fields of research and medical/technical innovations.”

    Aguirre described the ONS’ collaborative work with security agencies at the national and local levels, including an awareness campaign on safeguarding science intramurally and an upcoming extramural training program. She also testified that a lack of resources is the biggest challenge for the ONS.

    Members of the committee highlighted the example of genomic sequencing as a possible area of concern, noting the delicate balance of advancing scientific progress while preventing data misuse. Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) cited the public health response to COVID-19 and the need to track coronavirus variants as an example of the importance of a balanced approach to sharing genomic data. Sens. Burr and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) raised a concern about the sequencing of human DNA samples being conducted in China for programs like the NIH’s All of Us research program and for companies like 23andMe.

    Candice Wright, acting director for science, technology assessment, and analytics at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), reviewed recent reports on foreign influence on federally funded research, including the NIH’s efforts to address financial conflicts of interest and stakeholder-identified foreign influence. She reiterated the GAO’s most recent recommendation for the NIH, saying that taking the next step to “address non-financial conflicts of interest in its policy documents could better enable NIH to receive complete and accurate reporting from universities.” 

    The HELP Committee hearing followed the April 21 Senate Foreign Relations Committee markup of the Strategic Competition Act, a bill to address competitiveness with China and foreign influence in U.S. research [refer to related story].