China makes bid for Chinese scientists under scrutiny in US

China is keen to show it can lure back top talent, with a university swiftly making an informal offer to two Chinese-American scientists dismissed from Emory University in the United States after an investigation into their possible ‘links to foreign governments’ – part of a drive by the Trump administration to curb technology transfer to China and possible intellectual property theft.

The two Chinese-American neuroscientists, Li Xiao-Jiang and his wife Li Shihua, a professor of genetics, were sacked on 16 May by Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, over non-disclosure of funding from China.

Emory said in a statement that two faculty members, which it did not name, had “failed to fully disclose foreign sources of research funding and the extent of their work for research institutions and universities in China”.

Li Xiao-Jiang had benefited from China’s prestigious Thousand Talents programme, which has come under particular US government scrutiny. The Thousand Talents programme was designed to reverse China’s brain drain to the West but more recently has been key in turning China into a research and innovation nation.

Emory University also asked four Chinese postdoctoral students working in the lab to leave the US within 30 days, according to US-based Science magazine. Chinese sources said the Emory lab also had 10 Chinese students and three technicians, two of whom are US citizens.

Song Xianzhong, president of Jinan University in China’s southern Guangdong province, said in Hong Kong on 25 May that his university would welcome the Li couple and the rest of the Emory research team if they decided to return to China.

“The trade frictions between China and the US are bound to affect talent,” Song said. “We believe [Chinese] universities can hire [them] and they can contribute to social and economic development if they decide to come back.”

The Li’s have been visiting professors at Jinan University’s Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Institute of CNS regeneration since 2017.

Li Xiao-Jiang is also a Changjiang Scholar, a prestigious award from China’s Ministry of Education that recognises world-class research. Universities in China often vie to attract Changjiang Scholars to their institutions with enticing offers.

Spotlight on Thousand Talents programme

The Li case has further spotlighted China’s prestigious Thousand Talents programme, which was recently characterised by the US National Intelligence Council as a means for China to transfer often sensitive technology from the US by directly hiring researchers on US programmes attractive to China.

In December 2018 a US National Institutes of Health or NIH report raised concerns that Thousand Talents recruits had access to US intellectual property and that they transfer key data, produced using US federal research money, to China.

In August last year the NIH had already begun investigating the foreign ties of researchers at more than 55 US institutions, including Emory University.

In April, NIH Director Francis Collins told a Senate committee hearing there were “egregious instances” of scientists breaching grant rules by “double dipping” or not disclosing foreign funding for work that is NIH-funded, “diverting intellectual property” that belongs to their US institution, and sending grant proposals to other countries, allowing “ideas to be stolen”.

According to the NIH, Li Xiao-Jiang received NIH grants every year from 1998. The most recent was funding in 2018 for four projects totalling more than US$1.72 million.

The Emory expulsion was the second in which an investigation request of the NIH has led to an institution firing Chinese researchers. Three Chinese scientists were sacked by the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Reports cited internal documents detailing conflicts of interest and unreported foreign income by the three.

Two others at MD Anderson Cancer Center resigned ahead of termination proceedings and returned to China in January this year. Science magazine reported in April that 10 senior ethnically Chinese researchers had left MD Anderson in the past 17 months.

Earlier this year Chunzai Wang, a former research oceanographer with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was sentenced to time already served in a Florida jail for working simultaneously for the US agency and two China programmes, one of which was Thousand Talents.

Leading genetics research

The Li couple worked for 23 years at Emory University’s School of Medicine, setting up the lab that carried out leading research on Huntington’s syndrome, a neurodegenerative disease.

“Professor Li Xiao-Jiang is one of the most successful scientists in the field of Huntington's disease research and even hereditary neurological diseases in the world,” said Lu Bojun, a professor in the School of Life Sciences at China’s Fudan University.

“He has contributed several important research tools to this field. For example, antibodies against Huntington's disease protein, mouse models of Huntington's disease, primate models, and miniature pig models.”

A year ago Li Xiao-Jiang and his team created the world’s first genetically modified pig with Huntington’s, part of an NIH project, although papers published in the journal Cell mainly attributed the Jinan University centre and the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Key Laboratory of Regenerative Biology in Guangzhou.

In addition to his Emory University and Jinan University posts, Li was also a part-time professor at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan in China’s Hubei province.

Sources in China insist that the experiments conducted in the laboratories in China and the US were different, and that funding from the US and China were kept separate. Nonetheless, they acknowledge it may have sparked the Emory investigation and subsequent expulsions.

According to student accounts, the laboratory was sealed by the university on 16 May, while Li Xiao-Jiang was in China. Computers and materials were seized while several students were present conducting experiments. The students were told to stop the experiments.

Last year in a statement, Collins of the NIH said medical research was under constant threat from risks to the security of intellectual property and integrity of peer review.

“While we depend on the major national security agencies’ and the Department of Health and Human Services’ broad national security efforts to protect our national security interests, NIH and the US biomedical research community at large have a vested interest in mitigating these unacceptable breaches of trust and confidentiality that undermine the integrity of US biomedical research,” he said.

Li Xiao-Jiang was quoted in the Science report as saying: “I have disclosed my Chinese research activity to Emory University every year since 2012.”

He added: “I have provided documents requested by Emory University during the investigation of my research activity in China since early November 2018.”