Field teams bringing together law enforcement and universities will teach research institutions across the U.S. how to protect their data as the HHS’s national security adviser targets the growing threat of foreign influence on scientific research.
Michael Schmoyer, director of the Health and Human Services Office of National Security, said in an interview Tuesday his office will soon identify which universities will serve as the “agents of change"—peer educators who share best practices for securing data and intellectual property and strategies they’ve used to vet scientists during the hiring process.
Schmoyer received funding about three weeks ago to establish “fly away teams” of law enforcement, HHS staff, and university officials that will travel the U.S. teaching researchers how to protect themselves amid growing concerns about foreign scientists stealing U.S. research.
The goal is to help universities and researchers take steps to protect themselves and their work while acknowledging that medical research is increasingly global and data must be shared across countries. The latest coronavirus outbreak highlights how important that cross-country collaboration is.
“We cannot stop the research, the science, and the development that is going on,” Schmoyer said, but data generated from federally funded research needs to be shared on the HHS’s terms. “If I’m going to publish an article, I want to make sure that I am publishing the article. Somebody’s not taking my data set and using it or publishing it before I’m ready to publish it.”
The new outreach teams come after a spate of high-profile instances of foreign scientists failing to disclose government grants from other countries or taking U.S. research back home to recreate the findings in shadow labs. The problem appears to be growing, with the NIH investigating 80 institutions and 160 scientists over failures to disclose income and other significant resources they received from other countries while working on an NIH-funded grant. That’s up from the 70 institutions and 140 scientists the National Institutes of Health’s Michael Lauer reported in mid-December.
“This is a whole-of-government issue that has had us working across multiple branches of government on this topic,” Schmoyer said, adding his office is working just as closely with Congress as it is with the White House. “It is something that we are very attuned to and we devote a good amount of our time to.”
MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston beefed up its data monitoring, limited what data can go out via email, limited USB access, issued loaner laptops and phones for international business trips, and demanded more transparency from staff after it disclosed its own data security issues.
“We tried to refresh and update our polices. At the same time, we worked really hard to just generally protect against intellectual property theft and data loss, which can come from any source, honestly,” Allyson Hancock Kinzel, the center’s senior vice president and chief legal officer, said Jan. 31 at an American Health Lawyers Association conference.
Since MD Anderson’s disclosure, the head of Harvard University’s chemistry department was arrested along with two Chinese nationals on allegations they aided the People’s Republic of China. The chief executive officer and center director of the Moffitt Cancer Center resigned in December for violating conflict of interest rules through their work in China. The Van Andel Research Institute, an independent biomedical institute in Grand Rapids, Mich., agreed to pay $5.5 million to settle allegations that two scientists didn’t disclose Chinese government grants during the federal grant applications process.
Keep Data Moving
Productive research collaboration moves data from one lab or country to another, making that information usable globally, Heather H. Pierce, senior director and regulatory counsel at the Association of American Medical Colleges, said. The problem in these foreign influence cases is that data funded by the federal government disappears into another system and isn’t available for global collaboration.
“It’s exactly the balance that we have to think about,” she said. “Shutting down all movement of data over fear of bad actors also would shut down productive channels of data exchange.”
Finding that balance isn’t easy, Schmoyer acknowledged. But his biggest nightmare is when an institution won’t cooperate with his office.
“They know their institutions far better than we do. They know their staff, they know their faculty, and they know what their individual social culture is. So we need to leverage that knowledge and that experience to be able to work with them together on these things,” he said.