IG Reviews Financial Conflicts of Interest, Foreign Affiliations in NIH Grant Process

The Office of Inspector General (IG) at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released three reports on September 25, 2019 that analyze the procedures in place at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for reviewing financial conflicts of interests, vetting peer reviewers, and ensuring grantees appropriately disclose all sources of research support during their grantmaking process.

According to the IG, about 3 percent of NIH grants awarded in fiscal year (FY) 2018 involved researchers with financial conflicts. The report found that although NIH has made “substantial strides in reviewing the financial conflicts that institutions report,” it “lacks quality assurance procedures in its review process” and “cannot identify-and does not plan to identify-whether investigators’ financial conflicts involve foreign interests, but is identifying foreign affiliations through a clarification of its requirements for pre-award reporting.” The IG recommends that NIH perform regular “quality assurance reviews of the financial-conflict information in its online system to ensure the adequacy of its oversight.”

Regarding peer review, the IG found that NIH “gives little attention to foreign affiliation beyond requiring a justification for reviewers who are not based in North America.” The IG recommends that NIH “update its guidance on vetting peer reviewer nominees to identify potential foreign threats to research integrity” and “develop a risk-based approach for identifying peer reviewer nominees who warrant additional vetting.”

The reviews also concluded that NIH had “limited policies, procedures, and controls” in place for ensuring that institutions adequately report all sources of research support, financial interests, and affiliations. The report found that of the 1,875 institutions that received NIH funding in FY 2018 and were required to have financial conflict of interest policies, 1,013 did not have such policies posted on their websites. In addition, the IG reported that not all grant awardees may be aware that they are required to disclose financial interests to their institutions, and some institutions lacked awareness of their responsibility to create and maintain policies on financial conflicts. The IG urged NIH to monitor disclosures of financial conflicts more closely and ensure that institutions have the required policies in place.

NIH concurred with the IG’s recommendations in written comments to the report but indicated that the IG “conflated reporting requirements for research support and affiliations with reporting requirements for [financial conflicts of interest].” The agency noted that the institutions identified by the IG that did not have financial conflict of interest policies posted on their websites accounted for less than 4 percent of NIH grant awards and less than 5 percent of research funding. The IG in turn responded that these institutions “still represent a risk because the size of an institution or the amount of funding received does not lessen the possibility that a [financial conflict of interest] may go unreported.”

In recent months, focus on the oversight of foreign influence on research has been increasing. Lawmakers have made enquiries about the processes in place at agencies, such as NIH and National Science Foundation (NSF), to detect and deter foreign threats to federally-funded research. Lawmakers have also introduced legislation that intends to address issues of foreign influence on science and academic espionage without impeding scientific collaboration. Earlier this year, NSF announced new policies on foreign government talent recruitment programs and research protections from foreign influence. In September 2019, sixty science, engineering, and international education organizations, including AIBS, urged the heads of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, NIH, NSF, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense to consider a wide range of stakeholder perspectives as the agencies work together to tackle foreign influence on U.S. research.

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New Federal AI Research Program Announced

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has announced a new program to advance research in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and accelerate the development of transformational, AI-powered innovation. The new funding opportunity anticipates $200 million in large-scale, long-term investments in AI research and education over the next 6 years.

The effort is led by NSF in partnership with the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science & Technology Directorate, U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The program’s planning track will support grants of $500,000 for up to two years to enable teams to develop collaborative plans for full institute operations. Additionally, the program has an institute track to support cooperative agreements of $16 million to $20 million for four to five years for establishing AI research institutes.

The National Artificial Intelligence Research Institutes program anticipates $120 million in grants next year to fund planning grants and up to six research institutes within NSF to “create national nexus points for universities, federal agencies, industries and nonprofits.”

Among the six high-priority areas listed for the program are “AI-Driven Innovation in Agriculture and the Food System” and “AI for Accelerating Molecular Synthesis and Manufacturing.” A 2018 BioScience article explored the challenges of applying AI and deep learning technology to the life sciences, and highlighted the applications for agriculture and species conservation.

Learn more about the program and its requests for proposals at https://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgmsumm.jsp?pimsid=505686

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Ag Group Calls for Protecting Genetic Diversity of Food Animal Livestock

According to a new publication by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST), the genetic diversity of livestock and poultry is declining, leaving one-third of the world’s protein supply at risk to extreme weather and disease outbreaks.

CAST warns that “up to 25 percent of global livestock breeds are either at risk of being lost, or have already been lost.” The report discusses the risks associated with reduced access to genetic traits and recommends actions to protect remaining breeds that build on current conservation practices such as cryopreservation and germplasm repositories. “By losing breeds we make finding potential solutions to future production demands much more difficult, and recent history indicates that predicting future demand is problematic. Conserving breeds saves these options and keeping them in the agricultural landscape is a reminder that these options exist.”

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NSF Announces Repositioning of SBE Research Programs

On September 24, 2019, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced broad plans to reposition some of its basic research programs under the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic (SBE) based on stakeholder input.

There are several notable changes within the Social and Economic Sciences (SES) Division of SBE. The “Science of Science: Discovery, Communication, and Impact” program, formerly designated “Science of Science and Innovation Policy Program (SciSIP),” will focus on basic research to “increase the productivity of scientific workflows, our nation’s capacity to communicate it accurately and effectively, and the value of that work to society.” The “Science, Technology, and Society Program” has been renamed “Science and Technology Studies” and now focuses on research to better understand and improve science’s societal impacts. The “Cultivating Cultures for Ethical STEM Program,” now designated “Ethical and Responsible Research,” will support research on how to help scientists produce more replicable, reproducible, and ethical research. The former “Law and Social Science Program,” now called “Law and Science,” has been broadened to support basic social science research on relationships between law and all areas of science, including interactions with biological sciences and STEM education. The “Security and Preparedness” and “Accountable Institutions and Behavior (AIB)” programs will now support research on issues related to global and national security, institution behavior, and accountability.

Additionally, the “Science of Learning Program” under the Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) Division has been renamed “Science of Learning and Augmented Intelligence” and includes basic research on “how alterations to human contexts and relationships can bolster human intelligence, performance, and productivity.”

SBE will be hosting a series of webinars and virtual office hours this month to discuss details about the repositioning and its impact on SBE research communities. For more information, visit https://www.nsf.gov/news/newssumm.jsp?cntnid=299267&org=SBE&from=news

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Ecosystem Scientists to Share Insights on Coastal Ecosystems and People with Congress

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) is working with the Association of Ecosystem Research Centers - an AIBS member organization — to provide policymakers with news insights about the complex interfaces between coastal processes and hazards and natural and built environments. The briefing for lawmakers will be held in Washington, DC on October 30, 2019.

Read more about the program and RSVP here: https://www.aibs.org/rsvp/aerc2019.html

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Short Takes

  • House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) has announced that she will retire at the end of the current Congress. The Chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), is next in line to lead the full panel and said, "I am interested in placing my name for consideration as the committee member with the most experience and seniority when the time is appropriate." Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) has also expressed an interest in running for the sought-after House Appropriations Committee chair in 2021. However, if Democrats lose control of the House in 2021, then Kaptur and DeLauro could complete to be the ranking member on the panel.

  • The National Science Foundation (NSF) is seeking reviewers for its Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), which supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based graduate degrees at accredited United States institutions. Interested potential reviewers must create a registration and outline their research interests in order to be assigned applications in their expertise area. Reviewers will also participate in virtual panels to discuss the applications they reviewed. Register at: https://nsfgrfp.org/panelist_info/registration

  • The National Science Foundation (NSF) is organizing a series of NSF-funded virtual and in-person forums focused on identifying the opportunities and challenges for reintegrating research across the biology subdisciplines. Details about the effort can be found at https://reintegratingbiology.org/. The feedback from recent town halls on the topic will inform the next phase - four two-and-a-half day "jumpstarts" or workshops, to bring together researchers from across scientific, technical, and design disciplines to develop new and innovative ideas for future exploration. Applications to attend these jumpstarts are open to the public. Learn more and apply at https://reintegratingbiology.org/jumpstarts/

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Help Your Scientists and Students Strengthen Their Communication Skills

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) can bring our science communications professional development program to your organization. Designed to enhance the communication skills of scientists, particularly those interested in engaging with decision-makers and the news media, the program is an excellent way to develop new communication skills and identify effective methods for broadening the impact of research and education programs.

The AIBS Communications Training Boot Camp for Scientists expands on AIBS's highly successful media and science policy training workshops. The Boot Camp meets the needs of everyone from graduate students to senior researchers and program administrators to newly elected professional society leaders.

The Boot Camp is an intensive, two-day, hands-on workshop that is offered periodically in Washington, DC. We can also bring the program to your university, department, lab, institution, or company. We work with you to customize the program based on your needs.

Participants will learn:

  • How to translate scientific findings for non-technical audiences
  • How to tell a resonant story that informs decision-makers
  • How to prepare for and participate in a news interview
  • How to prepare for and engage in a meeting with a decision-maker
  • How to protect your scientific reputation
  • How to identify and define the audience you need to reach
  • What decision-makers want to hear from a scientist
  • What reporters are looking for in an interview
  • How to leverage social media
  • How the nation's science policy is developed and implemented

To bring the course to your institution and for more information please contact Dr. Robert Gropp at rgropp@aibs.org or 202-340-4281.

Learn more about the program at https://www.aibs.org/public-policy/communications_boot_camp.html.

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