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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher June 18, 2020

Fact-checking a claim about Trump, fired scientists, Anthony Fauci and China

If Your Time is short

  • 54 scientists were fired or resigned as part of a probe by the National Institutes of Health into scientists allegedly failing to disclose financial ties to foreign countries, primarily China.

  • 77 scientists have been removed from the NIH system, meaning they are no longer eligible for NIH grants. Grants weren’t “cut off.”

  • All the scientists worked at NIH-funded institutions, such as universities. They were not employed as NIH scientists.

  • Fauci leads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, not the NIH.

A total of 54 scientists have lost their jobs as a result of an ongoing federal investigation into whether they properly disclosed financial ties they had to foreign countries, primarily China.

But a Facebook post that cites the terminations is a little loose with the facts. And it misleadingly links Anthony Fauci, one of the leading federal experts fighting the coronavirus pandemic, to the National Institutes of Health’s investigation.

Here’s what the June 15 post said:

"Trump administration just FIRED 54 scientists & cut off 77 grants at Fauci's NIH for not disclosing their ties to Communist China!"

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

What is NIH and Fauci’s connection?

The National Institutes of Health, or NIH, is the largest single public funder of biomedical research in the world, and 156 of its funded researchers have received Nobel Prizes for their work, according to the Congressional Research Service. 

NIH is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, a Cabinet-level agency led by Secretary Alex Azar, an appointee of President Donald Trump. 

Fauci is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is part of NIH. The director of the NIH is Francis Collins.

The NIH investigation

In 2018, NIH announced it had concerns about protecting the integrity of U.S. biomedical research, "including the failure by some researchers at NIH-funded institutions to disclose substantial contributions of resources from other organizations, including foreign governments, which threatens to distort decisions about the appropriate use of NIH funds." The agency said it would work with other government agencies, NIH-funded academic institutions and others to investigate any failures by researchers to report substantial contributions.

In a June 12 report, NIH said 54 scientists have resigned or been fired. There were also 77 scientists who have been removed from the NIH system, meaning they are no longer eligible for NIH grants.

An NIH spokeswoman told PolitiFact that all the scientists worked at NIH-funded institutions, such as universities. They were not employed as NIH scientists. She said NIH is not releasing specific information on the scientists involved.

Featured Fact-check

In 93% of the cases, the hidden funding came from a Chinese institution.

The journal Science, which first reported on the update, said NIH has been in the forefront of federal efforts to identify and block behavior that many U.S. government officials say poses a significant threat to the country’s economic well-being and to national security.

Prominent Harvard case

One prominent case of this type is that of Charles Lieber, the former chair of Harvard University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department. He was indicted June 9 on charges of making false statements to federal authorities regarding his participation in China’s Thousand Talents Program. He has pleaded not guilty. 

Here’s a summary from the U.S. Justice Department:

Lieber’s research at the Lieber Research Group has been funded by more than $15 million in research grants from the NIH and the Defense Department. The grants required the disclosure of all sources of research support, potential financial conflicts of interest and all foreign collaboration. It is alleged that, unbeknownst to Harvard University, he became a "strategic scientist" at Wuhan University of Technology in China and a contractual participant in the Thousand Talents Plan.

Under the terms of Lieber’s three-year Thousand Talents contract, Wuhan University of Technology allegedly paid Lieber a salary of up to $50,000 per month, living expenses of up to 1 million Chinese Yuan (approximately $158,000 at the time) and awarded him more than $1.5 million to establish a research lab at WUT. 

In November 2018, NIH inquired of Harvard whether Lieber had failed to disclose his then-suspected relationship with WUT and China’s Thousand Talents Plan. Lieber allegedly caused Harvard to falsely tell NIH that Lieber "had no formal association with WUT" after 2012, that "WUT continued to falsely exaggerate" his involvement with WUT in subsequent years, and that Lieber "is not and has never been a participant in" China’s Thousand Talents Plan.

Our ruling

A Facebook post claimed: "Trump administration just FIRED 54 scientists & cut off 77 grants at Fauci's NIH for not disclosing their ties to Communist China!"

There are 54 scientists who were either fired or resigned as a result of an NIH investigation into scientists failing to disclose financial ties to other countries, with the vast majority of cases involving China. There were also 77 scientists, not grants, who are no longer eligible for NIH grants; it’s not that grant money to them was cut off. 

It’s also wrong to say NIH is Fauci’s agency; Fauci leads one division of NIH.

For a statement that is partially accurate, our rating is Half True.

Our Sources

Facebook, post (archived here), June 15, 2020

Email, Emma Wojtowicz, public affairs specialist, National Institutes of Health, June 18, 2020

National Institutes of Health, "Statement on Protecting the Integrity of U.S. Biomedical Research," Aug. 23, 2018

Science, "Fifty-four scientists have lost their jobs as a result of NIH probe into foreign ties," June 12, 2020

National Institutes of Health, "ACD Working Group on Foreign Influences on Research Integrity Update," June 12, 2020

Congressional Research Service, "The National Institutes of Health (NIH): Background and Congressional Issues," April 19, 2019

Inside Higher Ed, "54 Scientists Fired, Resigned Over NIH Inquiry Into Foreign Ties," June 16, 2020

Endpoints News, "It's not just Charles Lieber: NIH's ongoing investigation has swept up 54 scientists who violated rules about foreign ties," June 16, 2020

U.S. Department of Justice, news release, June 9, 2020

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