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The integrity of science is vital — politics cannot interfere

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On April 17, President Trump was asked by a misinformed reporter why the U.S. supported the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, which had been accused, without evidence, of engineering and possibly releasing COVID-19. The president responded that he was aware of it and would “end that grant very quickly,” referring to a highly ranked National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to a U.S. institution to study transmission of bat coronaviruses to humans in China and neighboring countries.  

Two days later, Dr. Michael Lauer, who directs the Office of Extramural Research responsible for oversight of the NIH grants program, wrote to instruct the grantee to implement a “temporary action” and “cease providing any funds” to collaborating scientists in Wuhan. Although no money had gone to the Chinese scientists under the current project, five days later Dr. Lauer informed the researchers that the entire research project was terminated “for convenience.”   

It is beyond credibility to believe that an investigation of the concerns driving this decision could have taken place within one week of the president’s stated intention to end the grant, let alone in the five days between the two actions at NIH. As the National Academy of Medicine recently put it, termination of a peer-reviewed grant “must depend on a thorough, objective and transparent review of scientific and administrative performance. Such a review should be strictly independent and insulated against political pressure in order to uphold the integrity of the scientific process and maintain public trust in federal research.” 

Politically-driven decisions such as the one noted here are an egregious aberration of the norm, and even one instance means the integrity of the system is no longer intact, establishing a precedent that can be repeated with impunity if there is no accountability and rapid corrective action.  

Dr. Lauer could not have taken the momentous decision to act on his own, and the responsibility to correct and reverse the damage belongs to his supervisor, Francis Collins, director of the NIH, and Alex Azar, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to whom Collins reports. Indeed, members of the Advisory Committee to the Director of NIH recently stated they “share the grave concerns expressed by the community … and recommend that the entire process leading to the … grant cancellation be thoroughly reviewed. … If indeed the process is found to have been flawed, we recommend that the NIH reverse this decision and implement better procedures to avoid a repeat of such occurrences.”  

On June 26, members of Congress requested Secretary Azar brief them on this issue by July 15.  There reportedly was no response, raising the level of concern over the sustained silence of leadership at HHS and NIH regarding this overt subversion of the NIH peer-review system. To shut down in this manner important research focused on understanding transmission pathways for bat coronaviruses to humans, including the present COVID-19 pandemic, represents the unfortunate and unnecessary blinding of critical U.S. science. It also virtually shoots our scientists in both feet, precluding their ability to walk together with Chinese counterparts to learn how the present pandemic originated and how to possibly prevent one from happening again. This ill-advised action must be transparently examined and, if without justification, immediately reversed. 

Integrity is one of those human values that is either whole and intact or it doesn’t exist. It depends on honest intent and does not necessarily mean being entirely or always right; when perturbed, integrity can be restored by corrective action. In this same sense, the integrity of science is self-correcting because the “scientific method” works to confirm findings or identify and fix errors. At its best, individual and scientific integrity intertwine in the way science is overseen.  

NIH’s decision to end this important grant violates the scientific integrity and insulation from politics built into the NIH peer-review system. It is both timeless and of immediate relevance during the COVID-19 pandemic, because it pertains to the politically-driven termination of a highly regarded grant to U.S. scientists studying the transmission of bat coronaviruses to humans. 

This issue may seem small in the context of current protests against racism and police brutality across the nation and elsewhere; however, understanding the true origins of the current pandemic — and future potential viruses originating from bats — is also of vital importance to the nation. 

This research grant deserves to be reinstated, and the stewardship over research across the whole of the U.S. government must be protected from future political interference. We must speak truth to power and reject power speaking to truth. 

Gerald T. Keusch is a former director of Fogarty International Center, and currently associate director of the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory at Boston University. Richard D. Klausner is a former director of the National Cancer Institute. Kenneth Olden is a former director, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. They write on behalf of 137 additional elected members of the National Academy of Medicine. The views expressed are those of the authors alone, and do not reflect the position of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

Tags bats Coronavirus Donald Trump National Institutes of Health Wuhan Institute of Virology

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