First the NIH Came for the Iranian Born Legal US Resident Scientists

Transparency, honesty, and collaboration are necessary to do science, including biomedical and clinical science right.  In the US, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have always had a good reputation for transparency, honesty and collaboration, although they have had some revolving door and conflict of interest issues of late (look here, here, here here, and here).

However, an April 3 article in the Washington Post suggests that things are going downhill. The lede was:

The National Institutes of Health is requiring all visitors — including patients — to disclose their citizenship as a condition of entry, a policy that has unnerved staff scientists and led to recent disputes with at least two Iranian scientists invited to make presentations, only to be blocked from campus.

The most important point was that although the two scientists were born in Iran, they were both legal US residents who had apparently lived in this country for a long time.

In one incident, a Georgetown University graduate student arriving for a job interview was held up at security, then allowed to proceed to one of the campus buildings. But as he prepared to make a presentation, NIH police arrived, removed him from a lab and escorted him off campus, according to a complaint Monday to a group that represents staff scientists.

In another, a brain researcher said he was told to leave, then delayed at security for nearly an hour filling out online forms. After interventions by NIH police and other officials, he was told an exception had been made that would allow him to deliver his presentation to the two dozen waiting researchers.

Both men had green cards and U.S. driver’s licenses and had previously visited NIH without incident.

There was no obvious reason,other than their Iranian birth, to be suspicious of these two men. In particular,

‘I am very surprised and disappointed that there are all these restrictions,’ said the brain researcher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing his relationships at NIH. He said he worked at NIH from 2009 to 2014 on an H-1B visa and had been invited to speak on his specialty last week. As recently as two months ago, he said, he had no problem entering the campus.

The actions seemed to have had their genesis in a post 9/11 policy that was never previously enforced.

NIH officials say the policy is not new — although they acknowledge posting a sign recently that says all visitors must disclose their citizenship in the NIH security building, known as the Gateway Center. People who work at the Bethesda, Md., campus said they had never heard of such questioning until the past few weeks.

An April 2 email obtained by The Washington Post describes a senior-level meeting Tuesday, at which the chief executive of the NIH Clinical Center, James Gilman, recounted how a long-standing policy ‘was never followed, and apparently in the past few days, security started following it, including signs at the visitor entrances that say they will ask for it [citizenship],’ according to a person who attended the meeting.

The excuse may be that the agency has recently come under congressional pressure to be more vigilant about industrial espionage, especially having to do with China.

In recent months, NIH and the FBI have warned U.S. scientists to beware of Chinese spies intent on stealing biomedical research from NIH-funded laboratories at universities.

Under pressure from lawmakers, led by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), NIH said in January it had referred 12 allegations of foreign influence over U.S. research to the HHS inspector general.

What the reported events had to do with China or industrial espionage is not obvious.  The Post article did suggest that

NIH — a research institution built on collaboration — is apparently following protocols used by federal security agencies that deal with highly sensitive or classified information and require top-secret security clearances for their employees. Visitors to those facilities must disclose their citizenship, and foreign nationals are provided with a badge different from those worn by U.S. citizens, security officials said.

Again, why the NIH should be viewed as similar to agencies dealing with top-secret information is unclear.

At least some NIH scientists are voicing concern about the new policies

One NIH researcher, G. Marius Clore, forwarded a complaint Monday to an elected committee that represents scientific staff, according to a summary of his remarks obtained by The Post. In the summary, Clore is quoted as saying that the incident involving the Georgetown graduate student is ‘something that [NIH leadership] needs to address right away. If this sort of thing gets out, nobody is going to want to come and work at NIH.’

An Apology, but No Clear Changes

A second Washington Post story, of course published late on a Friday, indicated that Dr Francis Collins, Director of the NIH, apologized for the treatment of the two Iranian born US legal residents:

In an email Friday to all NIH personnel, Collins said he is ‘deeply troubled’ that a Georgetown University graduate student was interrupted during a presentation that was part of an application for a postdoctoral fellowship and escorted from campus. He said he has ‘extended a personal apology to this individual.’

‘I also have learned of another non-U. S. citizen who had to miss the first day of a two-day meeting because of visitor clearance issues. I am also reaching out to that person to express regret,’ Collins wrote.

In the email, Collins said the visitor clearance process ‘was mishandled by security staff.’

Note that he did not acknowledge that the two scientists were legal US residents.

More importantly, Dr Collins did not personally acknowledge responsibility for his security staff’s actions, indicate that he actually could control their actions, or promise any change in the policy.  At best, his email stated:

This policy has not been well communicated.

Further,

We are reviewing procedures associated with this policy to ensure that all our guests, no matter where they are from, are treated with utmost respect and consideration, and that NIH staff understand their responsiblities in ensuring the necessary requirements are met.

Again, he did not state that NIH security would stop asking visitors about their citizenship, or would not restrict access to non-secret activities or facilities according to peoples’ place of birth.

So far, despite its implications, this case seems to be relatively anechoic.  The first WaPo article has appeared in other papers, and a summary of it appeared in The Scientist.  However, I have found nothing more so far other than the WaPo story of the “apology.”

Discussion

Impeding collaborations at the NIH with scientists who come from particular disfavored countries obviously could impede the progress of biomedical and clinical science.

Note that the WaPo article suggested that citizenship questions are also being asked of patients entering the campus, raising the spectre of patients born in disfavored countries being denied care.  That could obviously harm their care.

Furthermore, active discrimination by a US government agency against scientists and patients according to their place of birth seems to deny their “equal protection under the law,” as promised by the 14th amendment to the US Constitution.

Finally, a government institution involved in science and health care discriminating against people according to their ethnicity has a certain whiff of dictatorship and fascism. This whiff is accentuated under a regime that has a track record of singling out people by their ethnicity and/or religion.  As we noted here, its previously proposed bans of immigrants from certain countries has already impacted health care.  As Martin Neimoller famously wrote regarding the Nazi regime in Germany,

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

 Visitors stand in front of the quotation from Martin Niemöller
that is on display in the Permanent Exhibition of the United States
Holocaust Memorial Museum. Niemöller was a Lutheran minister and early
Nazi supporter who was later imprisoned for opposing Hitler’s regime. – US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Who will speak for the Iranian born scientists kept out of the NIH?

It certainly make sense for the US to be on guard for industrial espionage.  But this goes way too far.