Mike Lauer talks about the foreign influence investigations
Says more but still not clear why it had to be done this way
This ran on my blog over at Science. After our news story and editorial about the investigations that have harmed so many careers, Mike Lauer invited me to Bethesda to meet with him and Patricia Valdez. He said more than he has been saying, although I still believe this could have been done with less disruption given the fact that he says the criminal processes were the barrier to doing that and very few of the cases went criminal.
In March, Science published a news story and an editorial about how the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been investigating researchers in the United States—mostly Chinese or of Chinese descent—who were identified as violating grant funding policies. Today’s editorial in Science highlights a conversation that I had with Michael Lauer, the deputy director for Extramural Research at NIH. He invited me to speak with him directly to hear more about what happened and why he and his colleague Patricia Valdez submitted a letter in response to Science’s coverage. Below is our recent conversation (lightly edited for clarity).
Holden Thorp: Well thanks for doing this.
I’m convinced that these things were all legit, but I want to explore the way it all went down and what it means for the future. So, I guess my first question is: Can you understand why some people thought that the message was, “Go do lots of stuff with China,” and then all of a sudden the emergency brake got pulled? What’s your reaction to that?
Mike Lauer: I totally understand that, or maybe a better way of saying it is, I definitely appreciate that. I can see that from the point of view of faculty colleagues, they see a highly productive member of their department who is often spending time in China or collaborating with Chinese colleagues, doing high-quality work, publishing high-quality papers, getting recognized in a variety of ways. And then all of a sudden something happens and they’re disconnected from NIH or they’re disconnected from the university, or they’re told that it needs to stop. And of course, the part of the challenge here is that they’re not privy to the confidential conversations and deliberations that were going on. But if I’m sitting from the outside and watching this, I would quite frankly be quite scared. And would I wonder what was going on, especially when it’s occurring in the backdrop of lots of other things that are happening in our world.
Holden Thorp: And so in retrospect, and I’ve been a provost and a chancellor, I know how hard this is to do. Do you think you did everything you could have to let people know that this was going to be something that looked like a big change?
Mike Lauer: I guess I’d say yes and no. Yes, in the sense that we started with a bit of a communications blitz. NIH Director Francis Collins sent out that letter back in August of 2018. We set up an ACD (Advisory Committee to the Director) Working Group, which was publicized. We also participated in some highly public events, like a senate hearing in 2019. So that’s the yes part. The no part is that when it came down to brass tacks—involving individual scientists at individual universities—that kind of conversation did not happen as well as it could. We had extensive conversations with university administrators and with professional societies. We didn’t have the kind of conversations we should have had with on-the-ground scientists. And this is something that some of us actually talked about a couple of years ago--that we needed to be doing more of that, but it didn’t really quite happen. And so, I think it’s yes and no. So yes, we did communicate as best as we could with the administrative community and with the professional societies, but we definitely could have done a better job communicating with the scientific community.
Holden Thorp: And wouldn’t you say that the institutions could have done more on the ground at each place?
Mike Lauer: The institutions, I think, are highly variable. And this is one of the things we’ve come to appreciate in looking at all kinds of compliance-related problems—that there’s a high degree of variability in institutional culture. And that includes the kind of relationship that the administrative offices have with their faculty and with their department chairs. The degrees of communication between the different various parts of the university. Some universities, I think, did do a decent job of trying to communicate to their faculty the nature of the problems that they were having, and others were clearly more challenged.
Holden Thorp: Great. And if you had had your dream, would it have been more the case that the word would’ve gotten out, and that a bunch of people who didn’t realize what they were doing would’ve figured it out and come in and this could have been handled with less disruption to the careers of some of the people involved?
Mike Lauer: So, we have seen some situations where scientists have come forward and said, “Here’s what I did. I had a job in a foreign country. I didn’t tell you about it. I collected a fair amount of money. I didn’t tell you about it. And I realized that what I did was inappropriate and improper and I want to fix it. I want to come clean and I want to do whatever is necessary to come clean.” And then we’ve been able to settle this as a purely administrative matter and move on.
And unfortunately, that’s been much more the exception than the rule. And if it had been my dream, then I think we would’ve been able to set up something like that. This is Monday morning quarterbacking.
Holden Thorp: Sure.
Mike Lauer: But I think that we would’ve set up something back years ago, where we would’ve said, “We’ve become aware of this problem and if you come forward and tell us what’s going on, we will work with you, through your schools, but we will work with you to settle these matters administratively and to make sure that we have a common understanding about what the framework is for international collaboration.”
Holden Thorp: And what were the barriers to doing that?
Mike Lauer: Well, one barrier was that there were some cases that were going to criminal prosecution, and we are not the Department of Justice and we are not the China Initiative. And that’s really important, and I’m glad that’s in the letter, that we’re not the China Initiative. But whenever there are concerns about a legal proceeding beyond administrative actions, that obviously creates a whole set of barriers to communication. It is publicly known that there were efforts to develop something called an amnesty program. This was not something that we were directly involved with, but it was something that we did support in concept, which is that we would like to solve these matters and administratively as much as we possibly can. And I think that was part of the issue, was that early on there were a number of prominent criminal actions that were taken. And so that creates, needless to say, an atmosphere of fear.
Holden Thorp: Right. And so, why are you saying more now? You may think that you’ve been saying a lot of this stuff for years, but I think you’re saying more directly now, to me, than you have in the past. Which I think is a good thing, having been on the hot seat in administrative roles where I wasn’t saying enough, I think you’re making a smart decision now. So did something change? Was it just our news story or are there other things that have lined up that make it possible for you to write this letter and have this talk with me and be more forthcoming now?
At least be perceived as being more forthcoming now?
Mike Lauer: Yeah, I think a variety of events have happened over the past few years. So one is a gradual move, and in fact, in some cases, not so gradual, an explicit move away from a prosecutorial approach as opposed to an administrative approach, which we see as a good thing. The second is the NSPM-33 (National Security Presidential Memorandum 33) process has led to a lot of exchange. The idea is the exchanges, or I should say interchange... What am I trying to say? Engagement, dynamic engagement. And the engagement has been happening not only on an NIH level, but more importantly, on a whole-of-government level. And so through the NSPM-33 process, we’ve had an opportunity to hear about the concerns, about the worries that, what this is really all about is politics and xenophobia and racism. So we’ve had an opportunity to hear that, but I think news stories like yours and the opportunity to publish in your journal about our perspectives on this has definitely helped us to be more open.
Holden Thorp: Yep. Great. Okay. So there’s still some people who aren’t going to be convinced, because they were skeptical to begin with. It’s taken this much time for some of this stuff to go out. You’re still not going case by case and saying, “These are all legit.” What message do you have for them?
Mike Lauer: So the message that we have is that, the kinds of behaviors that concern us are not subtle, they’re not minor administrative mistakes. They represent some kind of serious integrity breach, stealth employment, having a job without anybody else knowing about it, duplicative funding, getting funded twice to do the same thing, significant financial interests that aren’t properly disclosed. We’ve seen people who have made tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars that have come to them personally that nobody knew about or telling lies after the fact, after something has been discovered, telling lies about it. And I think one of the messages—and by the way, I’m going to be doing an event in Philadelphia tomorrow, and we’ll be meeting with faculty and I’m going to use the opportunity to talk about these scenarios and saying, “This is what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about you checked off the wrong box on a form.”
I’ll give you an example of that. So, we’re not really interested in going after people because they checked the wrong box on a form, but let’s say the box on the form is their institutional disclosure. And on the institutional disclosure, the question is, “Are you engaged in any outside activities?” And the real answer is “yes,” and they check the box “no.” All right, well that’s more than a minor administrative error, that’s a serious problem. Now if you check the box “yes,” and then you’re not sure exactly how to answer all the questions and you don’t get them totally right, but you at least get the conversation started, that’s fine. I’m going to be there all day tomorrow and I’m going to spend a good part of the time saying, “This is the kind of thing that we’re talking about. It’s this kind of really egregious breach that’s not particularly subtle. That’s what gets us concerned.”
Holden Thorp: Yeah, great. And so there are a lot of people, and you said this in the letter, but I’ll give you another chance at rephrasing it if you want to and put it in a different place on the website—there are a lot of people now who are scared to go to China to talk at a conference or take an honorarium for giving a talk or even having a Chinese entity paying for their travel. And that’s something that the scientific community, which really values collaboration with basically all scientists, would be concerned about. What message do you have for those folks?
Mike Lauer: So I think a critical point is that these activities have led to some robust discussions about what proper international collaborations look like. We quote from the JASON report that was issued in December of 2019, and that’s the last paragraph of the letter where we actually go into that in a fair amount of detail. And we would urge people to take a look at that. And I’ve actually done that. So I’ve had situations where people have asked me, “One of our colleagues, one of our staff, would like to engage in a collaboration with scientists from China or from another foreign country—what do I do?” And so, I pointed to this item in the JASON report, and I said, “These are the questions you need to go through. It’s a series of questions.”
Each one by itself is fairly straightforward. You go through each one, and make sure you have those items covered. Some of the questions are for the scientists, some of the questions are for the university administration. And if you go through all these, you should be absolutely fine. And the response that I’ve uniformly received is, “Oh, these are great. These are quite clear, these are very helpful. We should have been doing this all along. And this is very helpful.” So that’s one message. The second message, which is also in the last paragraph of the letter, is that institutions are taking responsibility. And so, you published a piece a few weeks ago from MIT about the work that they have been doing, and they actually stay right up front, the government’s interested in this, and there are various other entities that are interested in this, but clearly institutions have a role to play as well.
And so, MIT has developed a framework—you had a box there about certain lines that they were not going to cross. One of the lines that they’re not going to cross is, nobody can participate in a Chinese talent recruitment program that is designed to move technology. So I think that this is not something in the ether. There are concrete steps that one can take that have been spelled out in official government documents, as well as in institutional documents, that make it readily possible for people to engage in international collaborations, including with China, and do it in a way in which they feel comfortable that they’re going to be okay.
Holden Thorp: Yeah. And so, the last question is maybe the most interesting for me, because this is the kind of thing that I write and talk about all the time, which is—and you’re sitting in the middle of it—so there’s certainty in Congress and in the electorate, which is reflected in bipartisan support for what you’re doing to protect America’s interests. But within the scientific community, there are a lot of questions, because people see this happening to their friends, but also there’s this general sense that we should collaborate with whatever it is, a quarter of the world scientists or more that are in other countries, other than China. And so, what do you make of that? You get to sit in meetings where you get praised for doing this by people on both sides of the aisle, and then you have to deal with the fact that there’s all this suspicion in the scientific community. So enlighten me, tell me what that’s like.
Mike Lauer: So I think one of the most important things that we as scientific leaders can do in our various sectors, whether we’re in government or we’re editors of major journals or we’re leaders at universities, is take a step up on the balcony and look from the outside and get a sense from the outside what it all looks like and what other people are seeing. One particularly shocking statistic that I’ve heard is that the majority of Americans don’t think highly of universities. And that has shifted over the last 10 or so years, that used to be that universities were held in very high regard. Now, a substantial proportion of our population, they don’t think that way. And that’s something that we need to appreciate. So I think one very important aspect of this is the importance of integrity among all participants in the process. Now, this is not an original idea.
The National Science and Technology Council put out a report in 1999, and it was endorsed by President Clinton where they talked about renewing the government–university partnership. This is the fundamental basis of federally funded research, is this partnership between the US government and universities. They lay out a set of guiding principles. One of the guiding principles is that whenever federal funds are given to universities to conduct research, it’s a form of public trust. And therefore it is incumbent upon all the participants to act with integrity. And if they don’t act with integrity, it threatens the credibility of the entire enterprise. There’s a lot of distrust in science, there’s a lot of distrust in academia. There are lots of reasons for that. It’s a multifactorial phenomenon, but it certainly doesn’t help when any of the people in our team, any of our scientists, don’t act with the highest levels of integrity. That does not help enhance the credibility of the enterprise.
So I think that one way of thinking about it is, this is something that leaders are told to do when you’re dealing with an adaptive challenge. An adaptive challenge is the kind of challenge where there’s no textbook answer or a button to push that that will solve the problem. So one of the things that you’re supposed to do is get out on the balcony, away from your own internal world and see what it looks like. And unfortunately, in some aspects it doesn’t look that good. And I think that’s part of the reason why we are getting, if anything, a bipartisan support, and if anything, bipartisan push to do even more. While on the inside, of course, for reasons that we’ve discussed earlier, it looks quite different.
Holden Thorp: Yeah, that’s fascinating. And this is as good a readout of this as you could see anywhere. Okay, Mike, those were my questions. Do you have anything else you wanted to add?
Mike Lauer: So I have two things I want to add.
Holden Thorp: Sure.
Mike Lauer: One is that I must say, you’ve got amazing staff. So Science’s Letters Editor, Jennifer Sills, as you say, you call her a wizard, so that’s right. And then I guess she then showed the piece to one of her colleagues who had not seen it before and instantly picked up on a few other things that I think the result is that we have a really solid piece.
Holden Thorp: That’s Lisa Chong, who is her boss.
Mike Lauer: Oh, okay. She asked all the right questions. And so, the result was, is that it went from being really, really, really good to being super solid.
Holden Thorp: No, it’s an honor to work with them.
Well, this is a historically important interview and I really appreciate you doing it.
Mike Lauer: Great. Thank you so much, Holden, and thank you so much for spending a few hours with us.
Holden Thorp: Sorry it took all this to make it happen.
Mike Lauer: Oh, that’s okay.
Holden Thorp: But we’re going to end up in a good place.
Mike Lauer: Yes, yes, indeed.