Why Grantees Must be Prepared for Heightened Scrutiny of Conflicts of Interest in Foreign Support for US Research

United States law enforcement agencies are continuing to pursue their goal of cracking down on China’s efforts to capitalize on research funded by the United States and otherwise infiltrate American research institutions. On May 8, another researcher was charged with one count of wire fraud stemming from his failure to disclose his ties to the Chinese government and Chinese companies to his employer, the University of Arkansas, and in a NASA grant application.

The researcher was charged with violating the University’s conflict of interest policy by failing to disclose his connections in China, particularly where he had disclosed similar connections years prior. As a result, the University certified in a grant to NASA that the principal investigator was in compliance with the University’s conflict of interest and outside employment policies when in fact he was not. Further, NASA’s Research Announcement highlighted the law restricting NASA from using appropriated funds to collaborate with China and stated that “by submission of its proposal [to NASA] the proposer represents that the proposer is not China and that the proposer will not participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally with China.”

In a separate case the same week, a former Emory University Professor and Chinese Thousand Talents Program participant pled guilty to filing a false tax return.  According to the charges, starting in 2012 and continuing until 2018, the defendant, while conducting research at Emory University on, among other things, the use of large animal models to investigate Huntington’s disease, also worked at two Chinese universities — first at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and then at Jinan University — conducting similar large animal model research.

Over those six years, the defendant earned at least $500,000 in foreign income that he never reported on his federal income tax returns. The false income tax returns came to light after the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reviewed the defendant’s NIH research grant applications and became concerned that he had failed to disclose, among other things, foreign research activity.  Those concerns prompted Emory University, and later federal law enforcement, to investigate the matter which revealed Li’s false tax returns. The defendant was sentenced to one year of probation and ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $35,089 and corrected tax returns.

These recent trends are based on the government’s continued focus on researchers under the influence of the Chinese government, which gained prominent attention in 2019.  Researchers need to be aware of the individual agency’s disclosure requirements for grant applications and their universities’ conflict of interest policies. In the COVID-19 era, with heightened international collaboration on research and researchers forced to temporarily relocate to other countries, Research Integrity Officers will be focused on monitoring compliance with these requirements.