Professors raise questions over $1.9 million Stanford-DOJ settlement

Stanford reached a $1.9 million settlement with the federal government over claims that the University knowingly concealed faculty members’ “current and pending support from foreign sources” on research grant proposals, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced on Oct. 2. No determination of liability has been made and the claims resolved by the settlement are solely allegations.

The government alleged under the False Claims Act that 16 proposals — submitted to the Army, Navy, Air Force, NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) between July 2015 and December 2020 — failed to disclose foreign funding that assisted 11 principal investigators (PIs), or lead researchers.

Some Stanford professors told The Daily they were unaware their grant proposals were included in the settlement and expressed confusion over the allegedly undisclosed sources of foreign support.

The allegations come amid the DOJ’s expressed efforts to combat foreign influence within U.S. research universities. Stanford professors whose grants were listed in the deal expressed concerns that the settlement could create a false appearance of misconduct and damage their reputations.

The deal settled additional claims that seven proposals to the Army, Air Force and NSF failed to disclose sources of foreign support backing Stanford chemistry professor Richard Zare. According to the settlement, Zare was employed at Fudan University, a national public university in China, and received funding from the National Natural Science Foundation of China. Zare did not respond to a request for comment.

University spokesperson Dee Mostofi wrote, “We are pleased to have resolved this matter and remain firmly committed to supporting our researchers in meeting federal compliance responsibilities.”

The settlement does not specify which foreign sources allegedly aided other faculty members. Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Corcoran, who co-led the investigation, said in an interview with the Report on Research Compliance (RRC) that PIs received support from Germany, Japan, Israel, China, Korea, India and Australia. Corcoran did not specify amounts of funding or whether this support came from government institutions, private sources or elsewhere.

Some grant proposals require researchers to disclose past foreign support, even when it is not directly supporting the grant. While one professor acknowledged support from a foreign source, they said it was for different research and not tied to the grant included in the settlement. The professor, referred to in this article as Professor A, requested anonymity due to fear of University retaliation.

Although the publicly available agreement does not name professors, it lists the 23 total grants with an alleged failure to disclose foreign support. Through public records, The Daily identified and reached out to 20 current or former Stanford faculty who served as PIs or co-PIs on those grants. Including Zare, these researchers span the fields of computer science, chemistry, biochemistry, applied physics, mathematics, statistics, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering. 13 did not respond to a request for comment.

“Counterproductive and irresponsible”: Faculty react to settlement

Several academics told The Daily they were surprised to see their grants publicly listed in the deal. Some expressed frustration with the University’s approach to communicating with affected faculty and uncertainty over the alleged “sources of foreign support.”

Some of the grants listed in the deal also had multiple PIs, making it unclear which researchers allegedly received this support. Jack Poulson, executive director of the nonprofit Tech Inquiry and former assistant professor of mathematics, was one of three co-PIs for an NSF grant from 2016. Poulson wrote that he first learned of the settlement and government allegations from a Daily comment request.

While foreign influence on Silicon Valley “is a known problem,” the DOJ’s release of “vague and arguably misleading assertions” — without specifying the accused parties and the funding they allegedly hid — was “counterproductive and irresponsible,” Poulson wrote. 

The DOJ’s claims are “unfalsifiable and people such as myself are improperly smeared despite not even knowing what the accusation is,” he added.

Current faculty members were similarly taken aback by Stanford’s deal with the DOJ. “It was a big surprise to me to hear from the news,” wrote computer science professor Monica Lam. “Stanford should have informed and consulted with me ahead of time.”

Lam wrote that she was “very unhappy” to find her grant on a public list. Her research on privacy with open source virtual assistants received a continuing award of $3 million from the NSF over four years, with four co-PIs also named on the grant. Lam added that she was unaware of any failure to disclose foreign support on the grant proposal: “We did not do anything wrong.”

According to Lam, she was informed well before the settlement that her NSF grant was being suspended, “though there was no official explanation given as to why.”

Lam acknowledged Stanford handled communication regarding the suspension “well,” calling to inform her the funds would be frozen before she received government notice. Stanford also covered the funds necessary for her research to continue, she wrote.

Echoing Lam, biochemistry professor Daniel Herschlag wrote that Stanford “covered all costs on [my] grant while it was frozen.” Herschlag commended Stanford’s response and said “That could not have been better.” He served as the PI on an NSF grant studying protein functions at the molecular level, joined by one co-PI.

Other professors shared Lam and Herschlag’s experience with University communication. Mark Horowitz, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and Sheri Sheppard, professor emerita of mechanical engineering, wrote that Stanford notified them of the investigation or settlement deal before the announcement.

Sheppard said Stanford lawyers informed her “in the last year or two” about a DOJ investigation including her grant, which studied the career trajectories of engineering students at American universities. She was never told what the alleged source of “foreign support” was.

Mostofi wrote that the University communicated with faculty members who were affected by the settlement. “The claims were against Stanford University, not individuals,” she also noted.

Mostofi later shared that there were multiple discussions with all but one affected faculty member before the settlement was finalized, and with all those affected after the DOJ’s press release. She did not specify whether “affected faculty” included all 20 PIs named on the grants or only the 12 who received allegedly undisclosed foreign support.

Some faculty worried specific grant numbers on the public deal would be traced to them and damage their reputations. Professors A and B said Stanford assured them that specific grant numbers would be kept private, though they ultimately appeared in the settlement. Professor A described this as an instance of the University “lying.”

Professor B, who was interviewed separately, requested anonymity due to professional obligations and fear of University retaliation.

In response to faculty concerns, Mostofi wrote that “Stanford was not informed of and had no control over the DOJ’s decision to disclose the individual award numbers as part of the government’s press release.”

Evolving University policies

Many researchers rely on University offices, such as the Engineering Research Administration (ERA) and Office of Research Administration (ORA), to navigate complex compliance issues in federal grant applications, according to Professors A and B.

Professors A and B said that their cases were developed in close partnership with University offices, whom they considered responsible for disclosing sources of support. A third Stanford professor said they prepared proposals independently but relied on research administration offices to review them. This faculty member spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear of University retaliation.

Professors A and B characterized the allegedly undisclosed “foreign support” they received as “industry gifts” from companies around the world, including U.S. subsidiaries of multinational corporations. Industry gifts are a common way for companies to support scientific research.

It was not widely considered a requirement at Stanford or other universities to disclose industry gifts on federal research proposals before 2020, professors A and B said. Even if administrators knew it was required, one professor contended that a failure to disclose industry gifts from foreign companies would amount to a “clerical error” by Stanford’s research administration offices.

In a 2022 communication shared with The Daily, Professor A’s grant administrator — also a manager at a Stanford research administration office — relayed that the NSF had not provided Stanford with any guidance on the disclosure of international gifts until 2019. The grant administrator wrote in this correspondence that Professor A’s industry gift did not meet ORA criteria for disclosure.

Professor A also told The Daily they became acquainted with the University’s policy from attending compliance workshops led by a Stanford research administration office.

When asked how the ORA treated industry gifts between 2015 and 2020, Mostofi wrote, “Over the last four years, our research security policies at Stanford have evolved in line with changes in federal rules.”

The University also vowed to cooperate with any further federal investigations and to collaborate with the NSF on “best practices” around grant proposals as part of the settlement. Mostofi wrote that “Stanford takes seriously the threat of foreign governments seeking to undermine U.S. national security.”

Originally posted 2023-10-27 11:38:04.