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By Mitch Ambrose
One year ago this month, Harvard University Chemistry Department Chair Charles Lieber was arrested for falsely denying to federal investigators that he had participated in a talent recruitment program supported by the Chinese government. The Department of Justice (DOJ) later added charges of filing false tax returns, alleging Lieber failed to report income received from the Wuhan University of Technology, which recruited him to establish a research lab.
The case marked an escalation in DOJ’s “China Initiative,” which it launched in November 2018 to increase resources devoted to prosecuting cases involving the misappropriation of US-funded research, among other matters. To date, the department has charged more than 25 researchers through the initiative, of which the majority are university professors or visiting academics. Many of the cases are still pending, including that of Lieber, who has pled not guilty.
Though DOJ has prosecuted several industry researchers for trade secret theft, the cases involving university-based scientists largely hinge on a variety of fraud charges, such as failing to disclose funds received from China. In concert with DOJ, over the past two years grantmaking agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF) have ramped up investigations of researchers suspected of failing to disclose foreign sources of grant support or other foreign ties.
In June 2020, NIH reported it had contacted institutions with concerns about 189 scientists, of which 175 had some form of undisclosed connection to China, such as significant employment contracts with Chinese universities. It also revealed that 54 of the scientists resigned or were fired as a result of the investigations. NSF subsequently disclosed that based on similar investigations it had taken administrative actions against 25 researchers, such as suspending or terminating their grants.
The scale of the firings and enforcement actions has unsettled many in the research community, with some advocacy groups arguing the government is unfairly targeting scientists with connections to China and harshly punishing what amount to administrative violations. Meanwhile, federal officials maintain they are rooting out serious violations of agency policies and research norms concerning transparency and reciprocity in international collaborations.
Another escalation in the China Initiative came when five visiting Chinese researchers were arrested over the summer on charges of lying about their affiliations with the Chinese military on visa applications. The head of DOJ’s National Security Division, John Demers, asserted at an event last month that more than 1,000 Chinese researchers affiliated with the Chinese military subsequently left the US, purportedly prompted by the arrests and an associated closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston.
Demers dismissed accusations that the government is engaging in racial profiling, remarking, “We're very careful about the way we talk about this problem because we don't want it to become about the Chinese people.” He added, “You'll see a great mix of defendants when it comes to ethnic backgrounds; we are very much focused on behavior.”
Pushing back on criticism that DOJ has leaned heavily on fraud charges rather than make more serious allegations of criminal conduct, Demers remarked, “Are those administrative violations? I don't know. I mean, those go to the core of integrity at an academic institution. And an academic institution is all about disclosing sources of funding so that people who are reading your research can figure out how to read that research. And that's true regardless whether your funding is coming from the alcohol and beverage industry or whether your funding is coming from the Chinese government.”
He continued, “The focus is on disclosure, and our cases there reflect a desire to tailor our approach to the values of those institutions, which are transparency and academic integrity.”
The author is Director of FYI.
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