Beyond Harvard Prof's Arrest, Increased Scrutiny Over Research Conflicts Sparks 'A Whole Lot Of Anxiety'

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Harvard University professor Charles Lieber is surrounded by reporters as he leaves the Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston Thursday. (Charles Krupa/AP)
Harvard University professor Charles Lieber is surrounded by reporters as he leaves the Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston Thursday. (Charles Krupa/AP)

The arrest of Harvard professor Charles Lieber appears to be the result of relatively new efforts by federal authorities to crack down on intellectual property theft. Specifically, he's charged with making false statements related to foreign funding he received while getting U.S. research dollars.

'Terrified Of Losing Their Jobs'

Federal grant compliance is a hot topic among academics these days. So much so the Society of Research Administrators International launched a two-day training on the subject last week.

"It’s easy to say there is a whole lot of anxiety. And every time a new case hits the newswire, yeah, it just ratchets that up," said Susan Wyatt Sedwick, a grant compliance consultant with the consulting agency Attain.

Wyatt Sedwick was one of two presenters at last week's training class, during which she said she fielded a lot of questions.

"I think a lot of our researchers are terrified of losing their jobs, of losing their ability to conduct their science," she said.

Wyatt Sedwick explained much of this tension and fear is coming from what many feel is a lack of clarity from major federal funders, like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Officially, their regulations around funding have not changed. But since 2018, the agencies have been cracking down on conflicts of interest and sharpening their focus on preventing intellectual property theft related to entities outside the U.S.

The NIH and NSF recently sent out guidance documents reminding institutions of federal policy around disclosure and “the need to report foreign activities.”

In August of 2018, the NIH sent a letter to more than 10,000 institutions warning them that "threats to the integrity of U.S. biomedical research exist" and that "in the weeks and months ahead you may be hearing from our Office of Extramural Research regarding grant administration or oversight questions or requests about specific applications."

Today, the first results of this mitigation effort have begun to appear. In April, for example, the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston fired three scientists for conflicts of interest and unreported foreign funding with ties to China. Last December, six people were dismissed from the Moffitt Cancer Center in Florida for unreported links to a Chinese medical university.

"There’s a real clash of cultures between what’s basically the federal police and academics who thrive on the open flow of knowledge."

Joel Brenner, former NSA inspector general

But Joel Brenner, an attorney and former National Security Agency inspector general, added the concern about intellectual property theft from U.S.-funded research goes back decades, at least among law enforcement agencies.

"The FBI and other counterintelligence officials have been warning of these problems for at least 20 years now," he said. "The academic community has been very skeptical."

Brenner argued there needs to be a better balance between the very open and sharing nature of the U.S. research community and prevention of intellectual property theft.

"If [foreign countries] catch up with us based on their own efforts that’s fine, but we don’t want them catching up with us based on theft," he said. "And not only coming over here and stealing secrets, but also creating conflicts like the one that professor Lieber is alleged to have been a part of."

Lieber, who chaired Harvard's chemistry and chemical biology department, is accused of lying about his participation in China's Thousand Talents Plan, which targets overseas researchers willing to strike what are often financial deals with China in exchange for their expertise. A judge on Thursday released Lieber from custody on a $1 million cash bond, ordering him to surrender his passport and remain in Massachusetts.

Concerns 'It'll Chill Very Legitimate Collaborations'

According to a 2017 report from the U.S. Trade Representative intellectual property theft by China alone costs the U.S. as much as $600 billion a year.

Still, many academics worry about the larger impacts this increased scrutiny could have on important research.

"It’s a concern that it’ll chill very legitimate collaborations with researchers in China, and that we might be the loser," said Ezekiel Emanuel, the vice provost for Global Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania. "We, the United States, might be the loser because the reason you collaborate is that they have information or techniques or insights that you think are going to be valuable to their research."

Others expressed similar concerns about the tension between balancing collaboration and secrecy in academic research.

"Our members have made it very clear to us. There are two core principles that have been central to the success of American science, and those are that science advances through being open and sharing information," said Tobin Smith, the vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities. He added the school leaders he works with readily admit that the scientific advancements they've made would not have been possible without the help of foreign talent.

Grant compliance consultant Wyatt Sedwick also pointed to a 30-year collaboration between the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the Chinese government as a major success.

"How are we going to address the spread of the coronavirus if we inhibit or place barriers to international collaboration. Big science requires that we talk about this globally," Wyatt Sedwick said, referencing the deadly disease that originated in China and has been found in other parts of the world, including one case so far in Massachusetts. "So we need to figure out ways where we can allow our researchers to do this in a compliant manner."

'People Are Adjusting'

To cope, U.S. schools, including several in Massachusetts, have been reviewing their policies and putting a lot of effort into communication once federal funding agencies renewed their focus on disclosures.

Last summer, the Office of the Provost at Harvard sent a letter to faculty reminding them that they "should be cognizant of the increased scrutiny of information submitted to federal agencies, both in proposal applications and on [research performance progress reports], as well as their other support, financial conflict of interest, biosketches, and outside appointment disclosures."

Officials at Boston University said they've also taken several steps in the last few years to ensure research staff have the information they need to stay compliant with federal funding policy. They created a website with direct links to relevant policy guidelines and a regularly updated FAQ section. They've also held town halls, and even created a newsletter on the subject.

Boston University Associate Provost for Research Gloria Waters said this new environment of increased scrutiny has taken some getting used to.

"This isn’t something we thought about two years ago," she said. "It’s been brought to our attention and I think people are adjusting."

Former NSA inspector general Brenner, who is also a senior research fellow at MIT, echoed that sentiment, and reiterated that existing tensions present a challenge.

"There’s a real clash of cultures between what’s basically the federal police and academics who thrive on the open flow of knowledge," he said.

But for now it seems a lot of institutions are left trying to figure out where the balance lies between sharing and protecting whats theirs.

This segment aired on February 3, 2020.


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Carrie Jung Senior Reporter, Education
Carrie is a senior education reporter.



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