Feng “Franklin” Tao collected tens of thousands of dollars a year from U.S. taxpayers for his research into sustainable technology for the University of Kansas. The problem, prosecutors say, is that the chemistry professor was already working for a Chinese university — an affiliation he hid from his American employers.
Mr. Tao was indicted last week on one count of wire fraud and three counts of program fraud. He is the latest Chinese researcher in the U.S. to be accused of double-dealing, and he could be sentenced to 30 years in prison and fined nearly $1 million on all four charges.
Analysts said to expect plenty more cases in the coming years as China’s government tries to place more researchers in U.S. facilities as part of a broader plan to siphon American know-how and technology back home.
Nicholas Eftimiades, whose 34-year government career includes stints at the CIA and Defense and State departments, estimates that 300,000 Chinese researchers are in the United States. If even 1% of them are involved in grant fraud, then that would add up to 3,000 cases for the FBI to investigate, he said.
“This is pervasive, and you are going to start seeing more of it because entities in the federal government have only recently begun investigating and putting the universities on notice,” he told The Washington Times.
In June, the National Institutes of Health said it referred to a government watchdog 16 accusations related to foreign influence of U.S.-funded research. It also said it has raised similar concerns with 61 research institutions.
Earlier this year, Virginia Tech professor Yiheng Percival Zhang was convicted of grant fraud for collecting federal funding for research he had already completed in China.
In the Kansas and Virginia Tech cases, the professors were linked to China’s Thousand Talents Plan. Beijing says the plan is a way to keep connections with scientists who have left China to do research elsewhere, but the U.S. government says it is a conduit to pilfer intellectual property and technology.
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray singled out China’s Thousand Talents Plan during testimony to the Senate last month. While acknowledging the plan isn’t inherently illegal, Mr. Wray said FBI investigations have uncovered cases in which it was used to flow U.S. intellectual property to China.
“The irony is that the U.S. is essentially funding that economic resurgence through various money it provides through grants, etc.,” he said. “I think we need to be a little bit careful that we don’t find ourselves in a situation where U.S. taxpayer money is being misappropriated for the advancement of China’s economic dominance over us.”
In May, the FBI arrested a former scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico on suspicion of lying about his involvement in the Thousand Talents Plan.
Federal prosecutors say Turab Lookman made false statements about his participation in the talent program to federal investigators during a background check and on a 2017 employment questionnaire.
He has pleaded not guilty.
A month later, the Energy Department banned its employees from participating in the program.
Chinese and Chinese American researchers said the crackdown amounts to racial profiling. They say unfair targeting by the FBI and others could lead to a “brain drain” because top researchers would shy away from the U.S.
In May 2015, the FBI arrested Xi Xiaoxing, a researcher at Temple University accused of sharing American technology for a pocket heater.
Six months later, the Justice Department dropped the charges against Mr. Xi. Prosecutors acknowledged they misinterpreted the science behind the blueprints for the pocket heater, a key piece of evidence in the case.
Mr. Xi filed a false arrest lawsuit against the FBI in 2017. It is not clear whether his lawsuit has been resolved.
The arrest sparked a backlash. A coalition of Chinese American science organizations penned an open letter warning that the Thousand Talents crackdown was tarnishing law-abiding researchers.
The groups, including the Society of Chinese Bioscientists in America, said the increased scrutiny has had “devastating effects” on scientists’ careers and a “negative impact on the Chinese American scientific community at large.”
Mr. Eftimiades said the talent programs and grant fraud are part of what he views as China’s “whole of society” approach toward espionage, relying on academics, business executives and others in the U.S. to grab intellectual property.
“With that ‘whole of society’ approach, you have all stratas of society collecting information through international espionage, unlike a country like the U.S. that limits activities to government agencies,” he said.
“I think we have been very slow to respond to this threat,” he added.