US-based academic who ‘had job in China’ faces fraud charges

Researcher could face decades in prison if found guilty

August 27, 2019
Judge and gavel

An academic at the University of Kansas has been accused of federal fraud for allegedly failing to disclose a full-time employment contract that he held with a Chinese university while conducting research at Kansas funded by federal research contracts.

Feng (Franklin) Tao, a chemist and associate professor at Kansas’ Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis, is charged with one count of wire fraud and three counts of program fraud. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years’ imprisonment and a maximum fine of $250,000 (£204,000) on the wire fraud count, and up to 10 years’ imprisonment and a maximum fine of $250,000 on each of the counts of program fraud.

The indictment against Dr Tao comes amid increasing concerns among federal research agencies and national security officials about alleged efforts by China to steal the fruits of US taxpayer-funded scientific research. Federal scientific agencies have also raised concerns about undisclosed conflicts of commitment in which researchers hold a position with an overseas institution while they are receiving federal grants.

“Tao is alleged to have defrauded the US government by unlawfully receiving federal grant money at the same time that he was employed and paid by a Chinese research university – a fact that he hid from his university and federal agencies,” assistant attorney general for national security John Demers said. “Any potential conflicts of commitment by a researcher must be disclosed as required by law and university policies.”

The indictment alleges that Dr Tao failed to disclose that he signed a five-year contract in 2018 with China’s Fuzhou University to be a Changjiang scholar distinguished professor, a position that the contract describes as full-time. The Changjiang scholar programme is sponsored by the Chinese government to attract and recruit scientific talent.

The indictment alleges that Dr Tao, who studies a surface chemical analysis technique known as ambient pressure X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, failed to disclose the Changjiang contract to Kansas and that he falsely certified to the university that he did not have any conflicts of interest.

“By not disclosing his position at Fuzhou, and certifying an absence of conflict, Tao was able to continue his employment with KU. His employment with KU allowed Tao to have continued access to US government grant or contract funds, which included funds not only for research but also for Tao’s salary,” the indictment states.

Dr Tao’s research at KU was funded through two Department of Energy contracts and four National Science Foundation contracts. Dr Tao is accused of fraudulently receiving more than $37,000 in salary paid for by DOE and NSF.

Douglas Girod, the university’s chancellor, said in a statement about the fraud charges that Kansas “learned of this potential criminal activity this spring” and reported it to authorities. Dr Tao has been placed on paid administrative leave.

Many if not most major research universities have recently begun revisiting their policies and protocols governing federal research grants and protection of intellectual property in response to the increased attention from federal law enforcement officials to academic espionage-related issues and the threat posed by China in particular.

The increased scrutiny has raised concerns in academia about whether ethnically Chinese scholars are being racially profiled and targeted for additional scrutiny. Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Rafael Reif reported that “faculty members, postdocs, research staff and students tell me that, in their dealings with government agencies, they now feel unfairly scrutinised, stigmatized and on edge – because of their Chinese ethnicity alone”.

As US-China relations worsen, some have also raised concerns about whether scholars stand to be penalised for forms of scientific collaboration with China – such as participation in the Chinese government’s talent programmes – that were previously considered by many to be within the bounds of normal academic collaboration.

The former assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s counterintelligence division, Bill Priestap, told a congressional panel last December that the talent programmes “encourage theft of intellectual property from US institutions”.

Such programmes, Mr Priestap said, “offer competitive salaries, state-of-the-art research facilities and honorific titles, luring both Chinese overseas talent and foreign experts alike to bring their knowledge and experience to China, even if that means stealing proprietary information or violating export controls to do so”.

“I have no first-hand knowledge of the case and no opinion about Franklin Tao’s innocence or guilt,” said Robert Daly, an analyst who has been tracking these issues and is the director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. “I do know that Washington’s concern with China’s talent re-recruitment programmes emerged only recently and that the new security issues involved are not fully understood by many American universities. One result of this disconnect is that American faculty of Chinese origin who ‘didn’t get the memo’ and continue to behave as they did before the issue appeared – especially by taking undisclosed dual appointments at Chinese institutions – may now be cast as criminals when they are merely guilty of moonlighting and careless paperwork.

“To protect faculty from unfounded accusations, it is essential that American universities orient their scholars about the FBI’s concerns and the need for full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest,” Mr Daly said. “To date, public reports don’t make clear that KU gave this vital information to Professor Tao. If he was not informed of these issues by his employer, 50 years in prison and a million-dollar fine seem like heavy penalties for a case in which no espionage or intellectual property theft is alleged.”

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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