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U.S. Government Has Increased Its Scrutiny of Science Research, Harvard Vice Provost for Research Says

University Hall
University Hall in Harvard Yard.

Vice Provost for Research Richard D. McCullough said in an interview Thursday that in recent years, Congress and federal funding agencies have imposed increased scrutiny of science research at Harvard and other research institutions.

McCullough pointed to a warning FBI director Christopher A. Wray issued early last year at a congressional hearing about the threat of intellectual property theft as the start of heightened scrutiny, which McCullough described as a bipartisan effort.

“They have expressed, you know, a lot of concern about certain activities that might threaten what they say will be in the national security,” McCullough said.

A congressional report released Monday concluded that the United States government had failed to prevent China from stealing intellectual property from American universities and does not have a “comprehensive strategy” to deal with the threat.

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“U.S. universities and U.S.-based researchers must take responsibility in addressing this threat,” the report reads. “If U.S. universities can vet employees for scientific rigor or allegations of plagiarism, they also can vet for financial conflicts of interests and foreign sources of funding.”

The report also called on the FBI to more regularly and effectively warn research institutions about the threat. Tthe National Institutes of Health is currently investigating potential intellectual theft at more than 70 American universities.

In the past year, Harvard has formed two committees to review and implement changes to research grant compliance procedures, specifically for federal funding. One committee, overseen by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, has strengthened oversight of grant submissions, according to Dean of the Sciences Christopher W. Stubbs.

The other committee — which McCullough co-directs with Vice Provost of International Affairs Mark C. Elliott — seeks to complement existing oversight structures, including the “provostial review” process which applies to certain research projects that seek external funding.

“We’re just putting extra eyes on things,” McCullough said. “We're protecting the faculty. Our job is to make sure that they don't do something by accident and ruin their reputation.”

The NIH’s and FBI’s inquiries have focused almost exclusively on scientists of Chinese descent — some of whom are naturalized American citizens — whom they allege have funneled sensitive information to the Chinese government.

Stubbs announced at a faculty meeting earlier this month that the NIH has inquired about potential discrepancies in grant proposals at Harvard. It is unclear whether the NIH or FBI is investigating any researchers at Harvard.

McCullough cautioned Thursday against casting all research conducted with foreign scientists as worthy of dismissal or suspect treatment.

“Openness and collaboration with other countries, including China, is important for advancing healthcare and science writ large,” he said.

McCullough added that Harvard largely relies on the federal government to vet foreign researchers and visitors.

“We depend on the visa system as a way to figure out who should be here and who should not be here,” he said. “We’re not in the business of policing.”

McCullough, who participates in a roundtable group of administrators at roughly a dozen elite research institutions called the Ivy-Plus Research Officer Group, said the threat of intellectual theft has emerged as a “major topic” of discussion among academics.

“Half of the meetings we spend trying to figure this stuff out,” McCullough said. “Everybody’s trying to just get their head around this, to make sure that you're, you know, partners with the United States government.”

— Staff writer Jonah S. Berger can be reached at jonah.berger@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonahberger98.

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