Lab in US Shut Down for Chinese Funding


30 May, 2019

A university in the U.S. state of Georgia this month dismissed two Chinese-American scientists for not disclosing sources of overseas financing and research ties in China.

Emory University fired brain scientist Li Xiaojiang, and his wife, Li Shihua, on May 16. The two led and operated a laboratory and have worked at Emory for more than 20 years.

Emory said Li and his wife failed to "fully disclose" overseas sources of research funding and their professional ties to China. Investigators took computers and documents and questioned members of their team.

Chinese-American scientists Li Xiaojiang (R) and Li Shihua (L) are shown in an undated photo.
Chinese-American scientists Li Xiaojiang (R) and Li Shihua (L) are shown in an undated photo.

Both the Lis are U.S. citizens. As researchers, they are known for gene-editing technology and studies of Huntington disease in animals.

Li told Science Insider that he was "shocked" by Emory's move to terminate him in "such an unusual and abrupt" way. He added that he did not receive exact details for the reasons behind his termination.

The university closed the laboratory while Li was visiting China. It gave four Chinese postdoctoral students working there 30 days to leave the United States.

Li said he had told Emory University about his Chinese research activity every year "since 2012."

Emory said it acted on a warning issued by Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States. Last August, Collins warned of hidden sources of overseas funding for researchers working at NIH-supported institutions.

Science Insider reports that the NIH has been in contact with two U.S. universities for several months about whether researchers are following agency rules on revealing foreign funding.

Emory said in a statement that the two researchers "failed to fully disclose foreign sources of research funding and the extent of their work for research institutions and universities in China."

The NIH told Congress that it has identified at least 190 researchers receiving money, known as grants, who may have problematic foreign relationships. It also said that at least 55 institutions have begun investigations.

Li Xiaojiang was a member of the Chinese government's Thousand Talents Program, which encourages leading professionals to work in China.

Heng He is a scientific commentator. He told Radio Free Asia he was not surprised by the firings. He said the Thousand Talents program was a part of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's general strategy for gaining knowledge and expertise from overseas.

Heng said, "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."

I'm Anne Ball

Anne Ball adapted this story based on reports from Radio Free Asia, Science Magazine and the South China Morning Post.

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Words in This Story

fire – v. to dismiss someone from a job

disclose – v. to make something known to the public

abrupt – adj. very sudden and not expected

terminate – v. to dismiss someone from a job

postdoctoral – adj. relating to work that is done after a PhD has been completed

obligation – n. something that you must do because of a law, rule,or promise

steward – n. someone who protects or is responsible for money or property

encourage – v. to make (something) more appealing or more likely to happen

talent – n. a special ability that allows someone to do something well