Institute to pay $5.5M for not disclosing Chinese grants

Grand Rapids
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WASHINGTON (AP) — A Grand Rapids research institute accused of failing to disclose Chinese government grants to two of its researchers has reached a $5.5 million settlement, the Justice Department announced Thursday.

Federal officials said the Van Andel Research Institute acted with “deliberate ignorance or reckless disregard” when it applied to the U.S. government for grants on the scientists’ behalf without also acknowledging that the researchers had been receiving funding from China.

The civil case is part of a broader crackdown by the Justice Department and other agencies on unreported foreign funding — especially from China — to researchers at American universities and institutions. U.S. authorities have also been warning the schools about Chinese government efforts to pilfer research and other cutting-edge technology.

The Justice Department says institutions that apply for funding from the National Institutes of Health, but fail to disclose foreign government grants, violate federal rules that require them to reveal when research will be or has already been performed outside the United States.

In this case, officials say, the institute learned about Chinese grants to one of the researchers while reviewing a proposed press release for a journal article the scientist was publishing. Instead of asking for more details about the scope of foreign funding that needed to be disclosed to NIH, officials removed references to the Chinese grants from the press release.

“It is imperative that recipients of NIH grant funds properly report all sources of research support, financial interests and affiliations of individual researchers to ensure the proper and effective use of taxpayer dollars,” Lamont Pugh III, a senior official with the Department of Health and Human Service’s inspector general’s office, said in a statement.

The Justice Department says the researcher, who also held a directorship at a Shanghai-based research institute, received funding between 2012 and 2018 from a variety of Chinese sources, including a talent recruitment program that the U.S. says facilitates the theft of intellectual property for Beijing’s benefit.

After the NIH last November warned the institute about the lack of disclosure, the institute said no disclosure was necessary because there was no overlap between the grants the researcher was getting from China and from the U.S. government.

“The United States contends that VARI does not know whether that statement was, or is, accurate and acted with deliberate ignorance or reckless disregard for the truth in making that representation to the NIH,” the Justice Department’s settlement agreement says.

The institute released this statement about the settlement:

“Van Andel Research Institute is an independent biomedical research organization that collaborates around the world to advance biomedicine and education. In the past five years, scientific findings by our researchers have been among the most noteworthy in the field,” said Jana Hall, chief operations officer of Van Andel Research Institute. “Over the past several months, the Institute has been cooperating with a U.S. Department of Justice civil investigation related to the filing of certain administrative reports and communications associated with National Institutes of Health grants. We recently reached a settlement, which we believe is in the best interest of the Institute. VARI did not admit any liability, and this civil matter has no connection to the quality of the Institute’s science or the validity of our research findings. In addition, both professors referenced in this civil matter have resigned from VARI. We remain deeply committed to ensuring that our processes meet funding disclosures and NIH requirements.”