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Two Chinese American professors at Emory University have been fired for failing to disclose research fundings from China and their work for Chinese universities while receiving federal grants from the U.S. government, the latest example of how the U.S. is battling with Beijing’s growing influence on academic activities and addressing intellectual property protection in the science field.
Xiao-Jiang Li and his wife Shihua Li, both professors of human genetics at Emory University School of Medicine, have been dismissed this week, Yahoo Finance learned. The investigation on Li was prompted by a letter that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) sent to over 10,000 academic research universities last August. The letter urged institutions to work with NIH and other agencies including the FBI to crack down on foreign influence, particularly from China. Recipients of U.S. federal funds have to disclose if they are receiving funds from other countries and are not allowed to share their grant applications with foreign governments.
Xiao-Jiang Li disputed the allegations in an interview with Science Insider on Friday, saying he has been disclosing his Chinese research activity to Emory University every year since 2012 and cooperating with the investigation, which began in early November 2018.
“I was shocked that Emory University would terminate a tenured professor in such an unusual and abrupt fashion and close our combined lab consisting of a number of graduates and postdoctoral trainees without giving me specific details for the reasons behind my termination,” Li said in a statement.
The dismissal of Xiao-Jiang Li, a tenured Emory professor since 2005, came as a surprise to many. He is a distinguished professor, who also runs Emory’s Li Laboratory, which has 11 researchers. Information about the couple and the lab has been removed from Emory’s website.
“Through an internal investigation, 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. Emory has shared this information with the NIH, and the faculty members are no longer employed at Emory,” Emory said in a statement on Thursday.
Li moved to the U.S. from China to obtain a doctoral degree in the late 1980s and became a naturalized American citizen. Li and his team made a major breakthrough by establishing a pig model of Huntington's disease through genetic engineering technology, which was well-received after their research was published in Cell magazine in March 2018. China’s Jinan University, where Li is a professor, says the work is sponsored by state and provincial funds as well as NIH grants. Records show Li received over $1.7 million in the form of four NIH awards in fiscal 2018.
Since 2007, Li has held various positions at Chinese universities and was recruited into China’s Thousands Talents Program in 2010. The highly-selected program came under fire in Washington for targeting top Chinese talent overseas and bringing them back to the country to “enhance China’s high-tech industries and emerging disciplines.” Over 8,000 scientists have been recruited to the program. Li’s participation in that program likely triggered the investigation.
This is not the first time Chinese-descent researchers lost their jobs as a result of NIH investigations. In April, the top cancer research center MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas ousted three Chinese senior researchers after NIH notified them about their foreign ties.
“Individuals that are being reviewed are not all of Chinese ethnicity. However, China’s Thousands Talents Program is a known prominent player,” NIH said in a statement to Yahoo Finance.
U.S. and China are rivals in tech
Against the backdrop of the U.S.-China trade tension, the two countries are increasingly seeing each other as strategic rivals in key tech and scientific areas including 5G. Recent developments have sparked unease among Chinese communities in the science industry. Several groups of Chinese or Chinese American scientists published a letter in Science in March, calling “the recent political rhetoric and policies that single out students and scholars of Chinese descent working in the United States as threats to U.S. national interests.” Foreign nationals make important contributions to American institutions and to science. Twenty-four percent of Nobel prize winners in the U.S. were foreign-born scientists.
“The challenge is to find ways to build and continue important and successful relationships with foreign scientists around the world while simultaneously protecting the nation’s biomedical innovations and intellectual property,” NIH said.
In Li’s case, Chinese national researchers who worked for Li Lab, could lose their visa status and face deportation.
“Emory values the international diversity of its students, faculty, and staff, including those from China, and we will continue to honor that diversity as we build upon our commitment to improving the world around us,” an Emory spokesperson said in a statement.
Note: This story was updated on Friday, May 24, 2019.