Chinese scientists in America face special scrutiny. Why?

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By Luz Ding | March 25, 2020

Illustration by Alphabetes

Last January, Tán Wèihóng 谭蔚泓 was forced to resign from the University of Florida after an internal investigation revealed he had undisclosed ties to China. In this story, the Tampa Bay Times refers to him as “Faculty 1,” and says he, along with another faculty member, “participated in Chinese recruitment programs, worked directly for Chinese research institutions and accepted research grants from China — all without the required disclosures to UF or the federal officials approving their grant money.”

A year later, Tan was back in Shanghai leading a team to develop a speedy COVID-19 testing kit in a project supported and fast-tracked by the Chinese State Council.

Tan’s story has been highlighted in recent days as a cautionary tale against the Trump administration’s crackdown on foreign talent in the U.S. But he is hardly the only scientist who’s been forced to exit the U.S. for essentially not filing the correct paperwork. “The government’s investigations and prosecutions of scientists for nondisclosure — a violation previously handled within universities and often regarded as minor — may prove counterproductive,” wrote ProPublica. “The exodus of Tan and his colleagues highlights a disturbing irony about the U.S. crackdown; it is unwittingly helping China achieve a long-frustrated goal of luring back top scientific talent.”

Since last January, at least 20 ethnically Chinese scientists have made the news for potentially having ties with China. In the court of public opinion, they are often presumed guilty, no matter how minor their offense (if there even is one). Many have been forced to resign from their universities or research institutes and return to China — where they are embraced with open arms. Tan, for instance, returned to his lab at Hunan University, where he thrived. Wú Xīfèng 吴息凤, an epidemiological researcher who left the University of Texas after being investigated, is now dean of Zhejiang University’s School of Public Health, with a well-equipped laboratory. 

Tan Weihong and Wu Xifeng

Since the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched a campaign to root out foreign influence on federally funded research in August 2018, universities in the U.S. have investigated nearly 200 scientists. Many of these scientists are well-funded and established researchers who are ethnically Chinese.

Not disclosing ties with China is the most common allegation, but more severe accusations include hiding associations with Chinese organizations, having conflicts of interest, and theft of scientific ideas, designs, and samples. Some researchers have been brought to federal courts based on these charges, such as Zhōu Yǔ 周宇 and Chén Lì 陈莉, researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s Research Institute in Columbus, Ohio, who face up to 10 years in prison for allegedly stealing trade secrets. Their trials are still in progress.

Thousand Talents Plan

A big impetus for the investigations was China’s Thousand Talents Plan, a government program to recruit top foreign scientists overseas to work in Chinese universities and produce publications and patents. NIH’s actions were prompted by information from the FBI, which had undertaken broad efforts to counter China’s intellectual property theft in early 2018.

“There is a Chinese government program to recruit NIH-funded researchers to steal intellectual property, cheat the peer-review system, establish shadow laboratories in China,” Senator Roy Blunt said in a Senate budget review hearing last April. He requested the NIH take more actions against China’s Thousand Talents program and to hold researchers accountable.

Chinese Americans have called the FBI and NIH’s investigations “racial profiling.” Many Chinese and Chinese-American scientists now live in fear due to the hundreds of ongoing investigations and increasing scrutiny. They are scared of going to prison, losing their jobs, or suffering professional embarrassment and shame.

Frank Wu, former law professor and current chairman of the Chinese-American leadership group Committee of 100, said scientists should take the rules of their grants seriously. “Even though they did nothing wrong, they are told they have to prove that they did nothing wrong,” Wu said. 

Wu added that “innocent until proven guilty” is often the American legal norm in criminal trials, but for scientists with Chinese descent, it’s now “guilty until proven innocent.”

“Of course there are real bad apples, bad apples are everywhere. And they are clear cases of criminal activity and subsequent prosecution,” David Ho, a prominent HIV/AIDS researcher at Columbia University, said at a conference last November. “But there are also real cases of government overreach. You target a Chinese talent program, you’re going to find only Chinese scientists.”

Ho said many of the cases in the media fall into a gray zone, including the case of Lǐ Xiǎo-Jiāng 李晓江, a neuroscientist at Emory University. Ho said Li’s case was the consequence of the scientist’s sloppiness by not filling in the necessary forms, which, until recently, would not have warranted an investigation.

The case of two Emory professors

Last May, Emory University in Atlanta terminated two Chinese-American neuroscientists, Li Xiao-Jiang and his wife, Lǐ Shìhuá 李世华, who was the lab co-leader. Both of them had worked at the university for 23 years and were known for their research on Huntington’s disease. They came to the U.S. from China for their Ph.D.s in the 1980s and became naturalized U.S. citizens. 

Emory accused the Lis of failing to “disclose foreign sources of research funding and the extent of their work for research institutions and universities in China.” Li Xiao-Jiang denied the accusation, saying he had reported all of his work in China to Emory since 2012, when he first joined the Thousand Talents Program.

Emory’s investigation started in early November 2018. Six months later, on the morning of May 16, 2019, Emory raided Li’s lab while he was on a trip to China, forced out his students, grounded his wife, canceled his school email address, and deleted his profile page from the department’s website. Everything was perfectly coordinated.

“They treated us like criminals,” Li told the New York Times.

Ten of Li’s postdoctoral students and visiting scholars, all Chinese nationals, and three technicians — two American citizens and one green card holder — were caught off guard that morning, when many of them were still working with experiment cells or feeding research mice. Many of Li’s students have said, in separate interviews, that they feared they would not be allowed to graduate. As career scientists, they had come to the U.S. in the hopes of being published in a world-renowned journal. They did not expect to get up in political crossfire.

On the day their laboratory was raided, the researchers received a text message from Emory University. “We are working on transitioning the grants and have determined that we need additional information from you that will help with this process,” the Emory School of Medicine’s human resource representative wrote. “We have scheduled an appointment for you tomorrow.” 

The “appointment” turned out to be an interrogation by school officials with a lawyer representing the university. Nothing about “transitioning grants” was discussed or even mentioned. The interrogators only wanted to know about their instructor, Li Xiao-Jiang, asking questions like whether Li had “brought anything back to China,” and, “Does his Chinese lab look the same as the American one?”

The researchers were told not to divulge any information to other lab members. They answered questions under intense pressure without any legal representation. 

Li Xiao-Jiang and Li Shihua

“Chinese students are often simple-minded,” a member of Li Xiao-Jiang’s lab said. “They come to the U.S. and go directly to the lab to do experiments, barely even communicating with the outside world.” The researcher asked for anonymity for fear that commenting on the case would affect future opportunities to publish or study in the U.S.

“None of us have been through a major event like this before,” the researcher said. “Firing tenured and distinguished professors in such a manner makes it even more unthinkable.”

As a result of Emory’s investigation, four postdoctoral students, all Chinese nationals, were terminated and asked to leave the country immediately.

Hearing the news of Emory closing Li Xiao-Jiang’s lab, Jinan University, which has hosted Li’s research in China, wasted no time welcoming Li and every researcher on his team to continue their work in China.

“The U.S.-China trade frictions will certainly affect Chinese talents in the United States,” Sòng Fèngxiàn 宋献中, president of Jinan University, said last May. “As long as they are willing to come back, Chinese universities have all the capacity to take them in.”

Since last May, Li Xiao-Jiang and Li Shihua have continued their research at Jinan Univesity’s Institute of Central Nervous System Regeneration.

What can Chinese scientists in America do?

Researchers who find themselves facing an uncompromising investigation should hire a lawyer as soon as government authorities or university investigators contact them to have a conversation about “compliance with rules,” according to Frank Wu. And a lawyer should be present when they answer or sign anything.

“Hire a lawyer at the first sign of trouble,” Wu said. He added that researchers and professors often assume the school and their dean will be on their side, which simply isn’t the case. Some also don’t understand the risk level and believe they can handle the allegations by themselves, which might make the situation worse for them.

“Don’t think that technical expertise and prominence in your scientific field will protect you from allegations,” Wu said. “A cancer researcher can no more handle this issue than I as a lawyer can perform cancer research.”

As a last resort, moving back to China is a proposition that is beginning to look better by comparison. China is currently the second largest spender on scientific research and development, with more than $ 372 billion invested from the government, from industries, and universities in 2019. China is fast closing its gap with the U.S., which spent $ 476.5 billion in the same year. China has surpassed the U.S. as the world leader in the number of science and engineering publications, and China’s intellectual property office now receives more than three times the number of applications as the U.S. annually.

China has not hidden its eagerness to reverse the brain drain and recruit the world’s top scientists, most of whom are in the U.S. The number of U.S.-trained researchers returning to China has doubled from 2010 to 2017, and the ongoing investigations against Chinese scientists in the U.S. has only pushed more established and resourceful scientists to Beijing’s side.

David Ho, the scientist at Columbia University, said that the forces that repel in the U.S. can be stronger than any forces that attract from Chinese talent recruitment programs — to the detriment of all.

“Talented scientists have options,” Ho said. “Nothing will drive sea turtles back to China more than a toxic environment here.”

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