Criminal Charges Reveal Reality of China's Connections to Investigators

From a lost-and-then-recovered hard drive with a “confidential” file to vials secreted in socks packed in a suitcase, the more than half-dozen criminal cases against U.S. researchers for inappropriate foreign ties have a few elements in common with spy novels and James Bond films.

These kinds of details are what get the most attention so far, as there have been no jail terms or hefty fines. That’s because with few exceptions, the cases of accused investigators are still winding their way through the court system; a recently concluded case resulted in just a one-year probation.

However, that doesn’t mean some others won’t be going to jail, perhaps for a long time. And in likely every case, those involved have already lost, or will lose, their employment and careers. And the cases undoubtedly bring unwanted attention to both the accused investigators and their institutions.

The past two-and-a-half years have seen the first criminal cases brought by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) against investigators who have undisclosed or otherwise illegal support from foreign organizations, with cases heating up after NIH Director Francis Collins in July 2018 warned universities to determine if there were any in their midst.[1] These handful stand in contrast to the single case against an institution, which paid $5.5 million to settle False Claims Act allegations related to two investigators.[2]

At a June meeting of the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director, Michael Lauer, deputy director for extramural research, said the agency is aware of 399 “scientists of concern,” and has begun investigating 189 of these.[3] But it’s not just NIH-funded researchers who have been accused. Others have been supported by the departments of Energy and Defense, as well as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA.

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