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In Uptick in Prosecutions, Three PIs Face Charges for Over Foreign Support, 'Theft'

As far as the public could tell, August and September weren’t very good months for research integrity or, apparently, the appropriate handling of grant funds. The U.S. government recently announced not one but three criminal indictments of principal investigators (PIs) who received NIH and National Science Foundation (NSF) funding.

This rare trio of cases highlights historical concerns over misspent funds, but also cast unwanted attention on the confounding and troubling threat of foreign influences in the research enterprise, which is implicated in one of the cases.

The PIs at issue—two of whom, coincidentally, are from New York state—have pleaded not guilty. Alleged illegal acts by the PIs include testing out equipment made by a company that was also surreptitiously compensating the researcher (including via the purchase of a car) at the same time the firm was also billing the state, creating a shell company to funnel cancer research funds, and secretly pledging to work full time at a Chinese institution while employed at a U.S. one.

At least one expert tells RRC the cases reflect heightened attention by law enforcement and Congress, and warns that institutions must respond appropriately when internal concerns arise, as not doing so can lead to costly whistleblower complaints.

“Several factors” have altered the landscape “for federal awardees, and oversight is expanding,” said Valerie Bonham, a partner with Ropes & Gray LLP. Among them is the changing rhetoric about the importance of integrity. “Participants who see something wrong have more encouragement from the NIH to raise their concern,” she said.

Concerns about foreign influences are continuing to surface in Congress, she added. Most recently, the Senate appropriations committee’s HHS fiscal year 2020 bill calls for NIH to “implement a broad education campaign about the requirement to disclose foreign sources of funding and develop enhanced cybersecurity protocols,” and to further “evaluate the peer-review system and their internal controls through a lens that takes into account national security threats.”

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