In August 2018, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins sent a letter to American research institutions identifying “threats to the integrity of U.S. biomedical research.” Collins’ letter presented “areas of concern,” including sharing of confidential information with foreign entities, the diversion of intellectual property to other countries, and the failure of researchers working at NIH-funded institutions to disclose financial ties to foreign governments.
On January 17 2019, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R–Iowa) wrote to the Department of Justice and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Inspector General Daniel R. Levinson, demanding information about the threats posed by foreign actors to the integrity of taxpayer-funded public health research. On January 31, Levinson responded to Grassley, stating that in the past five years, his office “did not conduct any investigations involving researchers who were allegedly foreign government agents” because these inquiries were the responsibility of the FBI.
Levinson’s response is troubling given the FBI’s repeated failures to protect American lives and interests. In 1996 and 1998, the FBI ignored intelligence reports showing that known terrorists had obtained flight training in the United States to use aircraft in suicide attacks. More recently, the FBI failed to investigate the Parkland school shooter, who ended up killing 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.
Levinson’s feeble response and the FBI’s tarnished history demonstrate that when the NIH gives away billions of our hard-earned tax dollars (nearly $39 billion in 2019 and more than $665 billion since 1994), there is no direct oversight to ensure that these funds are not given to agents of foreign governments working at U.S. institutions, nor any assurance that these funds are not directly used to steal intellectual property or subvert American public health interests.
As a former NIH research fellow, I can attest to the utter lack of accountability in taxpayer-funded research. Recently, I wrote how nonsensical nutrition research engendered a fictional discourse on diet-disease relations and how the quid pro quo nature of peer review funding created a culture of cronyism that corrupted science at the NIH, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Cancer Institute (NCI), and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). My conclusion was that the federal research establishment exists primarily to transfer wealth from hardworking Americans to affluent academics.
Nevertheless, recent events suggest my conclusion was incomplete. It is now apparent that federal public health agencies also transfer wealth from U.S. taxpayers to foreign entities. Over the past decade, the NIH gave billions of American tax dollars to foreign students and scientists. (You can find a complete list of the more than 200 foreign countries funded by the NIH by searching here. The number of foreign students and postdoctoral researchers funded by the NIH to conduct research at American universities is unknown but is estimated to be in the tens of thousands.)
To be precise, in 2018, the NIH gave more of our hard-earned tax dollars to researchers in foreign nations (China, Pakistan, Russia, etc.) than it did to American scientists in 20 U.S. states. For example, the NIH gave more money to researchers in South Africa (around $31,000,000) than it did to American researchers in Wyoming, Idaho, Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, or West Virginia.
Given the complete lack of accountability in NIH and USDA funding, over the past decade, Americans have received little for their massive investment in foreign research. For example, in South Africa, American taxpayers funded motivational counseling for “popular” bar patrons to enable these barflies to implement “alcohol risk reduction activities to their peers.” This research was part of the $2 billion that the NIH has given to South African scientists in the past.
More ominously, American citizens paid Pakistani entities to develop medical training programs for foreign students as a “Gateway to the Islamic World” shortly after 9/11 and while Osama Bin Laden hid within Pakistan’s borders.
These facts evoke a few simple questions: Why do our elected officials allow billions of dollars to be given to foreign students and researchers when American with PhDs cannot get jobs? Why does the Trump administration give our tax dollars to foreign students to earn advanced degrees at American universities when many Americans cannot pay their student loans?
How will funding foreign students and scientists protect American interests? Why is there no accountability in how the NIH, CDC, NCI, and USDA spend hundreds of billions of our public health research dollars?
As a scientist, I am appalled at the amount of money wasted on ridiculous public health research. As a taxpaying citizen, I am alarmed that billions of our hard-earned dollars are given to America’s competitors, foreign students, and even potential enemies. And while I sincerely applaud Grassley’s attempts to protect American interests, I know that the public health research “swamp” has many self-serving, crony-capitalist creatures and taxpayer-funded foreign scientists that will defy his best efforts.