Amid soaring U.S. concern about China’s infiltration in Western scientific research, Emory University has found that two of its researchers did not disclose money they were taking from Chinese sources, and that the two did more work for research institutions and universities in China than they had let on.
The two are no longer working at Emory.
The move comes one month after The Houston Chronicle reported that the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center forced out three senior researchers in connection with concerns about Chinese attempts to steal research. The moves are part of a wide-ranging effort in which federal authorities including the National Institutes of Health and the FBI have come to research administrators with concerns about theft and specific researchers.
The NIH said in August that it was investigating about a half-dozen research institutions, and Emory says the federal agency brought concerns about the two researchers to the school’s attention.
Emory would not disclose the names of the researchers, what they were working on or whether they worked together. They both worked in the same department with grant money from the NIH.
“The university is working to ensure NIH-funded projects continue,” said Vince Dollard, a spokesman for the university’s health sciences center. At the same time, he said, the university remains committed to the free exchange of ideas and to international research collaborations.
The NIH funds research on everything from the most basic science of how organisms work to cyberscience used in human health care.
Disclosure of where research money came from “is a basic requirement,” said Dr. Ivan Oransky, a physician and co-founder of the scientific ethics blog Retraction Watch.
That way, people can know whether a project was made possible by entities that are biased toward a certain outcome.
In recent years, concerns have grown about whether foreign governments, especially China, are involving themselves in U.S. scientific processes for others reasons, including stealing information.
The health research industry is an employment juggernaut with prestige. The flow of money is staggering: Health care makes up one-sixth of the U.S. economy.
The state of Georgia has set its sights on occupying a major place in health research. In Atlanta, Emory, Georgia State University and Georgia Tech are significant producers of research and researchers. They have access to massive data sets on the health of Americans and to the workings of sophisticated products and devices.
Like any prestigious university, the schools also rely heavily on talented immigrants to do that work.
Neither GSU, Tech nor the University of Georgia responded to questions about whether they were conducting disclosure investigations of their own.
U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa and the chairman of a committee that oversees the NIH, has spearheaded concerns about foreign influence in U.S. science and pressured federal agencies to ensure the integrity of research that relies on federal funding. In August, the NIH told research universities nationwide to tend to the issue.
The NIH’s concerns included researchers’ failure to disclose substantial contributions of foreign resources, diversion of research and intellectual property to foreign countries, and violating the near-sacred boundaries of confidential peer review, the evaluation process where scientists anonymously decide whose research is worth funding and publishing.
Some reports cited researchers who allegedly took confidential information from grant applications submitted for review. When scientists apply for grant money, they hope to excite support among reviewers by demonstrating the secret seeds of success they’ve already experienced, and exactly how they expect to make further progress. Such information is on the very frontier of scientific discovery and is closely held.
It also is the reward for the financial and professional risk the researchers already took to come this far.
“This isn’t an anti-China effort,” said Scott Kennedy, a senior adviser on China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has briefed the NIH on this issue.
Rather, he said, the U.S. scientific community has long relied on a world of open communication to advance scientific collaboration and discovery as efficiently as possible. “I think as a result they hadn’t developed very strong systems of accountability to deal with global participation,” Kennedy said. “So they are trying to catch up with reality.”
It’s important to keep perspective, said Frank Wu, a law professor at the University of California and president of the Committee of 100, an organization promoting Chinese-Americans and good relations with China. The committee has watched the rising scientific alarm.
“As a loyal Chinese-American,” Wu said, “it’s important to me that people of Chinese heritage who have done something wrong be held accountable — the same as anybody else. No more, no less.”
Wu added, “We have a fragile consensus these days in our great nation that when somebody does something wrong, that doesn’t mean everybody else with the same skin color or ethnic heritage or same last name has done or will do the same thing.”
The debate may be around a while.
“I expect there’ll probably be more,” Kennedy said about the feds’ probe into U.S. researchers across the nation. “They didn’t just find two cases.”
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