The Trump administration drove him back to China — where he invented a fast coronavirus test
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On the fourth floor of the University of Florida cancer research building, the once-bustling laboratory overseen by professor Weihong Tan is in disarray. White lab coats are strewn over workbenches. Storage drums and boxes, including some marked with biohazard warnings, are scattered across the floor. A pink note stuck to a machine that makes copies of DNA samples indicates the device is broken.
No one is here on this weekday afternoon in February. On a shelf, wedged next to instruction manuals and binders of lab records, is a reminder of bygone glory: a group photo of Tan surrounded by more than two dozen smiling students and employees.
As the Florida lab sat vacant, a different scene unfolded half a world away in China, where a team of 300 scientists and researchers worked furiously to develop a fast, easy test for COVID-19. The leader of that timely project? Tan, the former Florida researcher.
The 59-year-old Tan is a stark example of the intellectual firepower fleeing the U.S. as a result of a Trump administration crackdown on university researchers with ties to China. Tan abruptly left Florida in 2019 during an investigation into his alleged failure to fully disclose Chinese academic appointments and funding. He moved to Hunan University in south-central China, where he now conducts his vital research.
Tan, a chemistry professor whose research has focused on diagnosing and treating cancer, quickly pivoted to working on a coronavirus test when the outbreak began in China. Boosted by a Chinese government grant, he teamed up with researchers at two other universities in China and a biotechnology company to create a test that produces results in 40 minutes and can be performed in a doctor’s office or in non-medical settings like airport screening areas, according to a 13-page booklet detailing the test’s development and benefits. It has been tried successfully on more than 200 samples from hospitals and checkpoints, according to the booklet, which Tan shared with a former Florida colleague. It’s not clear how widely the test is being used in China.
Epidemiologists say that testing is vital to mitigate the spread of the virus. But the U.S. has lagged well behind China, South Korea, and Italy in the number of people tested. It’s hard to know if Tan’s test would have made a difference. The slow U.S. ramp-up has been blamed largely on bureaucratic barriers and a shortage of chemical agents needed for testing.
A star researcher funded by the National Institutes of Health, Tan taught for a quarter century at Florida and raised two sons in Gainesville. He was also a participant in the Thousand Talents program, China’s aggressive effort to lure top scientists from U.S. universities, and had been working part time at Hunan University for even longer than he had taught at Florida. Last year, alerted by NIH, Florida began investigating his outside activities.
Tan declined to answer questions about his departure from Florida or his new test, but he provided documentation that his department chairman at Florida was “supportive” of his research in China as recently as 2015. He is one of three University of Florida researchers — along with others from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and the University of Louisville — who relocated to China while under investigation for allegedly hiding Chinese funding or affiliations with universities there.
Such nondisclosure may well be pervasive. A ProPublica analysis found more than 20 previously unreported examples of Thousand Talents professors who appear not to have fully revealed their moonlighting in China to their U.S. universities or NIH.
NIH has contacted 84 institutions regarding 180 scientists whom it suspects of hiding outside activities or funding, and it has referred 27 of them for federal investigation, said Michael Lauer, the agency’s deputy director for extramural research. “There’s no reason why the U.S. government should be funding scientists who are engaged in unethical behavior. It doesn’t matter how brilliant they are,” said Lauer, who declined to discuss specific professors under scrutiny. “If they don’t have integrity, we can’t trust them for anything. How can we be sure that the data they’re producing is accurate?”
Yet the government’s investigations and prosecutions of scientists for nondisclosure — a violation previously handled within universities and often regarded as minor — may prove counterproductive. The exodus of Tan and his colleagues highlights a disturbing irony about the U.S. crackdown; it is unwittingly helping China achieve a long-frustrated goal of luring back top scientific talent.
Thousand Talents aimed to reverse China’s brain drain to the West by offering elite Chinese scientists premier salaries and lab facilities to return home permanently. Finding relatively few takers, it let participants like Tan keep their U.S. jobs and work in China on the side.
By investigating Tan and other Chinese researchers for nondisclosure, the U.S. government is accomplishing what Thousand Talents has struggled to do. None of the professors identified in this article have been charged with stealing or inappropriately sharing intellectual property. Yet in the name of safeguarding American science, federal agencies are driving out innovators, who will then make their discoveries and insights in China instead of the U.S. The potential drawbacks hark back to an episode in the McCarthy era, when a brilliant rocket scientist at the California Institute of Technology was deported by the U.S. for supposed Communist sympathies and became the father of China’s missile program.
John Brown, the FBI’s assistant director of counterintelligence, told the U.S. Senate in November that participants in Thousand Talents and other Chinese talent programs “are often incentivized to transfer to China the research they conduct in the United States, as well as other proprietary information to which they can gain access, and remain a significant threat to the United States.”
A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., disputed such characterizations. “The purpose of China’s ‘Thousand Talents Plan’ is to promote talent flow between China and other countries and to galvanize international cooperation in scientific and technological innovation,” Fang Hong said. While firmly opposing any “breach of scientific integrity or ethics … we also condemn the attempt to describe the behaviors of individual researchers” as “systematic” intellectual property theft by the Chinese government. “It is extremely irresponsible and ill-intentioned to link individual behaviors to China’s talent plan.”
Steven Pei, a University of Houston physics professor and former chair of the advocacy group United Chinese Americans, said that both countries have gone too far. “The Chinese government overreached and the American government overreacted,” Pei said. “China tried to recruit but it was unsuccessful. Now we help them do what they cannot do on their own.”
Pei added that U.S. universities are failing to protect their Chinese faculty: “When the pressure comes down, they throw the researchers under the bus.”
NIH has long viewed collaborations with China as a boon for biomedical research, even initiating a formal partnership with China’s National Natural Science Foundation in 2010. But it became concerned in 2016 when it learned from the FBI that an Asian faculty member at MD Anderson had shared federal grant proposals he was reviewing with researchers at other institutions — a violation of NIH rules.
Examining the grant applications of its federally funded researchers, NIH found many undisclosed foreign ties, particularly with research institutions in China. Some researchers were accepting dual appointments at Chinese universities and publishing results of U.S.-funded research under their foreign affiliation. Often, these foreign positions were not reported to the NIH or even the researchers’ own American universities.
In August 2018, the NIH launched an investigation to ensure that its researchers weren’t “double dipping” by receiving foreign funds for NIH-funded work or diverting intellectual property produced by federally backed research to other countries. The NIH found at least 75 researchers with ties to foreign talent programs who were also responsible for reviewing grant proposals. In some cases, Lauer said, Thousand Talents scientists with access as peer reviewers to confidential grant applications have downloaded them and emailed them to China. Other researchers have disclosed consulting or teaching in China but haven’t acknowledged that they’ve signed an employment contract with a Chinese university or are heading a lab, he said. NIH gave the names of “individuals of possible concern” to the researchers’ institutions but did not make them public.
To gauge the extent of the problem, ProPublica matched Thousand Talents recipients identified on Chinese-language websites with their disclosures to their universities and grant applications to NIH, which we obtained through public records requests. We found at least 14 researchers who apparently did not disclose foreign affiliations to their U.S. universities, which included the University of Wisconsin, Stony Brook University and Louisiana State University. We couldn’t determine if these researchers were also on NIH’s confidential list.
Of 23 Thousand Talents recipients in our survey who have sought NIH funding, none reported conflicts of interest with Chinese universities to the agency. Just three revealed these positions in the bio sections of their grant applications. Because NIH redacted foreign funding from the applications it provided to us, citing personal privacy restrictions, we couldn’t tell if the researchers reported any grants from institutions in China.
It’s not always easy to define or prosecute theft of intellectual property in academia, especially if the research is considered basic and doesn’t require a security clearance. Unlike corporations that protect trade secrets, universities see science as an open, global enterprise and promote international collaborations. Practices such as photographing another research team’s specially designed lab equipment may be considered unethical by some, but they aren’t necessarily unlawful. Thus the U.S. government is trying to clamp down on suspected intellectual property theft by targeting nondisclosure.
Yet the link between hiding Thousand Talents affiliations and stealing research secrets may be tenuous. Universities bear some responsibility for the nondisclosure, because they are supposed to certify the accuracy of information supplied to NIH. Until recently, many schools were lax in enforcing disclosure rules. “It’s fair to say, at some universities, they have not really been paying attention to how their faculty spend their time,” Lauer said. One professor was away for 150 days a year and the university didn’t notice, he said.
Non-Chinese scientists, including doctors paid by pharmaceutical companies, also underreported outside income. Nor did universities want to restrict partnerships with Chinese universities; in the prevailing culture of globalization, they encouraged foreign collaborations and sought to open branches in China to boost their international prestige and attract outstanding, full-tuition-paying students.
Now times have changed, and Chinese scientists at U.S. universities are trapped in the backwash. Even those who rejected overtures from China have been hounded. Xifeng Wu, an epidemiological researcher, worked at MD Anderson for nearly three decades and amassed an enormous dataset to help cancer researchers understand patient histories. She twice turned down invitations to join Thousand Talents. But she collaborated with and accepted honorary positions at research institutions in China, where she grew up and attended medical school. Although she said she earned no income from these posts, NIH identified her as a concern, and MD Anderson found that she did not always fully disclose her Chinese affiliations.
In early 2019, she left MD Anderson — one of at least four researchers who were pushed out of the center in the wake of the federal investigations. She has become dean of the School of Public Health, with a well-equipped laboratory, at Zhejiang University in southeast China.
Dong Liang, Wu’s husband and the chair of the pharmaceutical and environmental health sciences department at Texas Southern University, felt that MD Anderson buckled under pressure from NIH, which provided the institution with more than $145 million in federal grants in 2018.
“A few years back, they wanted the collaborations [with China],” said Liang. “And now, they take it back.” The disclosure rules, said Liang, weren’t clear, “and now it becomes a violation.”
Professors who were in the process of being fired could have exercised their rights to a hearing before a faculty panel as well as “several rounds of peer discussions,” but they instead left “on their own volition,” MD Anderson spokeswoman Brette Peyton said. “As the recipient of significant NIH funding,” MD Anderson had a responsibility to follow up on the agency’s concerns, or risk losing federal money, she said.
Baylor College of Medicine in Houston took a less punitive approach than MD Anderson. When NIH alerted the Baylor College of Medicine that at least four researchers there — all ethnically Chinese — erred in their disclosures, Baylor corrected the documents and allowed them to continue working.
China began sending students to the U.S. in the late 1970s in the hope that they would return with American know-how and foster China’s technological prowess. But, especially after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, many of the students stayed in the U.S. after earning their degrees.
Established in 2008, Thousand Talents was intended to lure prominent scientists of Chinese ethnicity under age 55 back to China for at least half the year with generous salaries and research funds and facilities, as well as perks such as housing, medical care, jobs for spouses and schools for children. Some Thousand Talents employment contracts require members to sign nondisclosure agreements related to their research and employment with Chinese institutions, according to a November 2019 report by the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
“The Chinese government has been the most assertive government in the world in introducing policies targeted at triggering a reverse brain drain,” David Zweig, a professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Huiyao Wang, director general of the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, wrote in 2012.
The program succeeded in attracting 7,000 foreign scientists and researchers as of 2017, the Senate subcommittee reported. But it had trouble enticing professors at elite U.S. universities, who were reluctant to uproot their families and leave their tenured sinecures. It created a second tier for recruits who were “essentially unwilling to return full-time,” Zweig and Wang wrote. They could keep their U.S. jobs and come to China for a month or two. Complaints arose in China about “fake returnees” who “work nominally in China for six months” but “in fact, most of them are still abroad,” according to a 2014 op-ed on the BBC News Chinese website.
Scandals marred the program’s reputation in the U.S. In 2014, Ohio State contacted the FBI about engineering professor Rongxing Li, who had fled to China. Li, a Thousand Talents member, allegedly had access to restricted NASA information. The U.S. attorney’s office did not bring charges against Li, who is teaching at Tongji University in Shanghai.