Neuroscience in a Global Era

NIH is deeply committed to ensuring research integrity. There have been a number of high-profile stories in the media involving undisclosed foreign support and/or affiliations on applications for NIH funding, and, in some circumstances, diversion of proprietary information in NIH grant applications. Unfortunately, these stories have fueled anxiety, especially among scientists from China or of Chinese descent. I have heard this concern echoed over the last few months by friends and colleagues in the community. I want to be clear: at NIH, including NINDS, the process of ensuring research integrity proceeds without regard to an individual’s name or nationality; rather, the focus is on specific behaviors. We apply the same approach to every grant application and award, and we stand by the NIH commitment to avoid stigmatization, harassment, and profiling.

Consistent with the August 2018 NIH Director’s Statement on Protecting the Integrity of U.S. Biomedical Research, our most serious concerns focus on three areas: 1) failure to disclose contributions of resources from other organizations, including foreign governments, which threatens to distort decisions about the appropriate use of NIH funds; 2) diversion of proprietary information in grant applications or produced by NIH-supported biomedical research to other entities, including other countries; and 3) sharing of confidential information by peer reviewers with others, including in some instances with foreign entities, or otherwise attempting to influence funding decisions.

NIH has emphasized to all applicants the need for disclosure of domestic and foreign research and support activities in grant applications to ensure that NIH can make fully informed funding decisions.  While acknowledging funding sources beyond NIH in journal publications may meet certain requirements (e.g., of the journals or of the funding recipient), that does not meet the need for disclosure to NIH to ensure NIH can make fully informed funding decisions.  Recently, the NIH Office of Extramural Research (OER) issued a Notice (NOT-OD-19-114), FAQs, and an OER Director’s blog that reiterates and clarifies these longstanding NIH policies. We emphasize the critical importance of transparency in reporting other support, especially as it relates to foreign activities. I am hopeful that these refreshers will answer questions from all researchers on what needs to be disclosed.

We know that international collaboration is critical to neuroscience. And transparent reporting will help to ensure that these collaborations are not put at risk. The policies on disclosing other support are intended to foster the integrity of biomedical research, including global research efforts. Neurological diseases know no borders. Scientific progress transcends laboratory doors, institutional campuses, and state and country lines. The mission of NINDS—to seek fundamental knowledge about the brain and nervous system and to use that knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disease—is a global one, and we know that the best science in pursuit of this mission is not reliant on a researcher’s nationality.

We have heard that some investigators are uncertain how to define collaborations, especially those that may lead to co-authorship on publications, that should be reported as a foreign component. To clarify, it is important to report a collaboration as a Foreign Component if a significant scientific element or significant segment of the research proposed in the NIH grant will occur outside the United States. This applies whether or not NIH funds are expended.

As to the concerns raised by scientists of Chinese descent who feel they are being targeted by increased scrutiny, I hear you. Please know that this is not the intent and we are sensitive to the perception that this is happening. Importantly, I want you to know that NINDS deeply appreciates the scientific contributions of the many neuroscientists around the globe who are from China or are of Chinese descent.

As an example, the Senator Jacob Javits Awards in the Neurosciences provides long-term support to NINDS investigators with a history of exceptional talent, imagination, and preeminent scientific achievement. Since the program began in 1983, the pool of Javits award winners has grown increasingly diverse. One Chinese-American awardee, the late Roger Tsien, was the recipient of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his development of a host of optical sensors that have revolutionized neuroscience. Without the work of a host of newly immigrated, and first-generation Chinese neuroscientists, the NINDS mission would not have reached its current level of fulfillment.

More broadly, American research institutions and universities are strengthened by foreign trainees, staff, and faculty. As noted by the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director (ACD) Working Group on Foreign Influences on Research Integrity during a presentation to the ACD, ”Individuals violating laws/policies represent a small proportion of scientists working in and with U.S. institutions. We must not reject brilliant minds working honestly and collaboratively to provide hope and healing.” At NINDS, we are committed to treating scientists of all backgrounds with fairness and respect and we encourage the same commitment throughout the research community and the institutions we fund.