GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The U.S. Department of Justice announced on Wednesday that Van Andel Research Institute has agreed to pay $1.1 million to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act by failing to disclose a foreign component of a National Institutes of Health award and by failing to disclose foreign research support.
In addition to this settlement – the second settlement with the institute in two years involving allegations of undisclosed foreign influence in federally-sponsored research – NIH imposed Specific Award Conditions on all of the institute’s NIH grants.
That includes requiring personal, executive-level certifications to the accuracy of NIH submissions, withdrawing certain expanded grant authorities and removing all of the institute’s NIH grants from the Streamlined Non-competing Award Process.
“Full disclosure is essential not only in validating scientific research, but also in the intense competition for scientific funding from the federal government,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge said. “NIH’s application process is intended to yield information that is critical to the agency’s responsible stewardship of billions of taxpayer dollars. My office will continue to use every available tool to preserve the integrity of that process. The research community should recognize that these cases are not going away.”
“The government’s allegations in this case should remind research institutions of the potential consequences for failing to adequately investigate ‘red flags’ concerning researchers’ relationships and affiliations,” said Lamont Pugh III, special agent in charge of HHS-OIG's Chicago Region. “HHS-OIG will continue to hold grantees accountable and protect the government’s investment of taxpayer resources, regardless of the length or complexity of the investigation.”
NIH requires grant recipients to disclose and obtain prior agency approval if a “significant” scientific element or segment of an NIH-funded project will be performed outside of the U.S.
“Foreign components” can include collaborations with foreign researchers who perform experiments in support of an NIH grant, regardless of whether those foreign researchers receive any of the NIH funding.
NIH also requires grant recipients to disclose “other support,” defined as all resources made available to researchers in support of and/or related to all of their research endeavors, regardless of whether such resources have monetary value.
“Other support” includes high-value materials that are not freely available and selection to foreign talent recruitment programs.
Back in December 2019, the Van Andel Research Institute paid $5.5 million to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act by submitting grant applications and progress reports in which it failed to disclose “other support,” including Chinese government grants that funded two researchers.
About one month later, U.S. Customs and Border Protection stopped an individual – a former Van Andel Research Institute researcher and current professor at the Harbin Institute of Technology in China – at Detroit Metro Airport with undeclared biological research samples in his luggage.
The government alleged that the professor said the research samples were intended for the lab of a professor at the Van Andel Research Institute.
That prompted another investigation of the institute, which resulted in the following allegations:
- Undisclosed foreign component
- Undisclosed “other support” (biological research samples)
- Undisclosed foreign talent program
About one-third of the settlement funds will be returned to NIH, with the rest going to the U.S. Treasury.
Van Andel Research Institute issued the following statement Wednesday in response to the settlement: