GRAND RAPIDS — The Van Andel Research Institute (VARI) has agreed to pay $5.5 million to resolve allegations that it failed to disclose on federal grant applications that Chinese government grants that funded two of its researchers, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday.
The settlement resolves allegations that VARI violated the False Claims Act by submitting federal grant applications and progress reports to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which are highly competitive and require institutions to disclose all financial resources, including other research grants.
The allegations also stated that in a 2018 letter, VARI made representations to the NIH with “deliberate ignorance or reckless disregard for the truth regarding the Chinese grants.”
“Our local institutions, like VARI, serve a vital role in raising West Michigan’s profile as a national player in cutting-edge biomedical research, but institutions everywhere must deal honestly and transparently when applying for U.S. government funding and respond appropriately when compliance issues arise,” Andrew Birge, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan, said in a statement.
“It’s unfair to other grant applicants and to the NIH for any institution to withhold requested information about whether the research that an institution wants the NIH to support may be getting funding from outside sources, specifically including foreign governments.”
In a statement, VARI COO Jana Hall touted the institute’s research achievements and its cooperation with federal officials.
“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,” Hall stated. “We recently reached a settlement, which we believe is in the best interest of the Institute.”
Both researchers involved in the alleged activity have resigned from VARI, according to Hall, who added: “We remain deeply committed to ensuring that our processes meet funding disclosures and NIH requirements.”
As part of its application process, the NIH requires recipients to disclose any other research grants available to researchers and key personnel. It also requires disclosure during the term of a grant if parts of the federally-funded research will be performed outside of the U.S.
The government alleged that VARI received NIH grants for two researchers between 2012 and 2019, and both researchers also received funding from Chinese sources while VARI was applying for and receiving NIH funds.
According to the Department of Justice, VARI did not take adequate steps to investigate the funding sources, despite receiving specific information about their Chinese affiliations. That information included a letter from the Chinese Thousand Talents Program, which supplied grants and research support to one of the researchers, according to a statement.
VARI learned about the Chinese grants in 2018 when viewing a press release for one of the researcher’s publications, according to the Department of Justice. Instead of informing NIH, VARI removed references to those grants. Shortly after, NIH Director Francis Collins wrote a letter to VARI stating the need to disclose support from foreign governments or entities. VARI did not disclose information about the Chinese grants after receiving the letter, according to the Department of Justice.
The Department of Justice said VARI instead retained a consulting firm and sent a letter in December 2018 to NIH that stated it was not required to disclose information about the foreign grants because “there was no undisclosed overlap of any budgetary resource, commitment or scientific endeavor.”
The settlement is in response to allegations in the case and is not a determination of liability.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated with comment from VARI COO Jana Hall.