Sen. Chuck Grassley’s (R-IA) inquiry into whether National Institutes of Health (NIH) medical research might be influenced by foreign entities led to revelations this week that the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services (OIG) is investigating a dozen allegations of noncompliance.
The inspector general noted that these referrals primarily dealt with the failure of principal researchers to disclose foreign affiliations.
“These new referrals appear to primarily involve Principal Investigators on NIH grants conducting medical research at US universities who allegedly have failed to disclose foreign affiliations on their grant applications,” OIG said in response to Grassley’s questions.
The inspector general noted that it has recently initiated evaluations to assess NIH’s vetting and oversight process related to research integrity, and has initiated audits on NIH’s awards process, including its process for assessing the potential risk of grant recipients.
In total, OIG said it has examined 51 complaints in the past five years from NIH. “Four of these complaints were related to potential research fraud, and none involved foreign contributions.”
Also in the past five years, OIG has made two referrals to the Department of Justice (DOJ) for potential prosecution. “One referral related to researchers who participated in federally funded research and allegedly failed to disclose their receipt of foreign government funding, and the other involved researchers who allegedly stole intellectual property created by taxpayer-funded research.”
DOJ declined to pursue action in both matters.
“Additionally, researchers who were allegedly agents of a foreign government would fall under statutory authority beyond OIG's purview,” OIG said.
As far as funding to improve its oversight, in fiscal year 2019, OIG said it received $5 million in appropriations for oversight of grant programs and operations of NIH, including efforts to ensure the integrity of its grant application evaluation and selection processes.
“We have recently initiated evaluations to assess NIH's vetting and oversight of its peer reviewers, including its efforts to prevent or detect inappropriate sharing of information by peer reviewers, and an evaluation of how NIH monitors the financial conflicts of interest (including foreign financial interests) reported by grantee institutions,” OIG said.
Response to Grassley