A university in Atlanta, Georgia has fired two Chinese scientists over an alleged failure to disclose sources of overseas financing and research ties in China.
Emory University said it had fired two faculty members, who were identified in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper as Li Xiaojiang and his wife Li Shihua, after an investigation revealed that they had "failed to fully disclose foreign sources of research funding and the extent of their work for research institutions and universities in China."
"Emory has shared this information with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the faculty members are no longer employed at Emory," the university said in a statement.
According to the Chinese science website Zhishi Fenzi, Emory shut down Li's laboratory on May 16, while he was on leave and visiting China. Investigators seized computers and documents, and questioned members of his research team.
Emory said it had acted on a warning issued by Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the U.S. last August, in which he warned of hidden sources of overseas funding for researchers working at NIH-funded institutions.
Li Xiaojiang had worked at Emory for more than two decades and led the university’s research on gene-editing technology, the SCMP reported.
He was a member of the Chinese government's Thousand Talents Program, a scheme to encourage leading professionals to work in China.
'Diversion of property'
In his August statement, Francis also warned of the "diversion of intellectual property in grant applications or produced by NIH-supported biomedical research to other entities, including other countries."
He said researchers asked to peer-review work in their field were also sharing that research with others, "including in some instances with foreign entities."
Emory said it began its probe after the NIH sent a letter to many academic research universities.
"Emory discovered that two of its faculty members named as key personnel on NIH grant awards to Emory University had failed to fully disclose foreign sources of research funding and the extent of their work for research institutions and universities in China," it said.
"Emory ... takes very seriously its obligation to be a good steward of federal research dollars and to ensure compliance with all funding disclosure and other requirements," the statement said.
Scientific commentator Heng He said he wasn't surprised by the announcement, and said the Thousand Talents program was part of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's overall strategy for acquiring overseas knowledge and expertise.
"It's pretty unique in the world, for a country to use all the power of the machinery of state to mobilize the resources of the whole of society, so that [Chinese] scholars working in the United States can serve the interests of their country," Heng said.
Feng Chongyi, associate professor in China Studies at Sydney's University of Technology, said the firing of the Li's was unlikely to herald a "purge" of Thousand Talents researchers in the U.S.
"This is more like killing the chickens to frighten the monkeys," Feng told RFA. "They want to curb the others, and let other researchers working in U.S. institutions know that they can't be as relaxed as they were before about taking U.S. technology back to China."
But he said the move could have an impact on other Chinese researchers applying for new research positions overseas.
"Things could get much harder for Chinese people applying to top research institutions in the U.S. or other Western countries in future," Feng said.
Australia-based student Wu Lebao said the impact would likely be limited to areas of research considered sensitive.
"On the one hand, they want to guard against Chinese infiltration, but there is a fundamental conflict with protecting their own interests," Wu said. "I think this will have an impact, but it is inevitable."
"I don't think that the normal development of China's economy is going to be negatively affected by a few controls on students and visiting scholars who work in national defense or high technology," he said.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Jia Ao for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.