NIH’s TikTok Moment

Posted on: March 24th, 2023 by admin
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What is it about the USA and China? Yesterday, the CEO of TikTok, Shou Zi Chew, was grilled for over five hours by the US Congress (seen right, © Getty Images). The 40-year-old Chew, who is Singaporean, was obliged to defend his company’s relationship with China, as well as what protections it has put in place for its youngest users. Almost half of all Americans – 150 million – are monthly users of TikTok, with two-thirds aged 13 to 17. Congress appears intent on shutting down the app, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, although there is bound to be considerable pushback from US consumers.

Today’s edition of Science contained a featured article entitled “Pall of Suspicion” by Jeffrey Mervis, with opening statement, “The National Institutes of Health’s ‘China initiative’ has upended hundreds of lives and destroyed scores of academic careers.” It provides an astonishing account of how Michael Lauer, head of NIH’s extramural research programme, has for the past four-and-a-half years targeted US-based researchers from China. He asked about 100 institutions to investigate faculty members who had allegedly violated NIH policies that were designed to ensure federal funds are spent appropriately.

In all, 246 scientists were accused of using part of their NIH grants to conduct research in China with a Chinese institution, a relationship that had not been disclosed in their grant applications. A staggering 103 scientists – 42% – most of whom held tenured faculty positions, have lost their jobs (see cartoon left, © AAAS). One researcher, Dr Li Wang of the University of Connecticut, fought back and had her contract termination overturned. The American Arbitration Association ruled in her favour and UConn was obliged to pay her $1.4 million in compensation.

Administrators such as Robin Cyr at the University of North Carolina (UNC) were taken aback by the tone of NIH letters saying, “It came out of nowhere and the accusations were pretty ugly. A Lauer letter meant that somebody at NIH thinks your faculty has wrongfully and wilfully divulged intellectual property.” UNC was told that their entire portfolio of NIH grants – which was approaching $1 billion – was at risk if one of the accused scientists was not dismissed.

It would appear the NIH is most concerned about “double dipping” where the principal investigator receives funding from two separate sources for the same project. My own institution, the University of Cape Town, is the largest recipient of NIH grants outside the USA and I shudder to think what would happen if Lauer were to apply his bullying tactics to our researchers. As my title suggests, this is the NIH’s TikTok moment.

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