Atlanta-based Emory University has sacked two US government-funded scientists for allegedly failing to disclose their sources of overseas funding and research ties in China.
The university said on Thursday that an investigation revealed that the two faculty members had "failed to fully disclose foreign sources of research funding and the extent of their work for research institutions and universities in China".
"Emory has shared this information with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the faculty members are no longer employed at Emory," the statement said without naming the former staff.
Chinese science website Zhishi Fenzi identified the scientists as Li Xiaojiang and his wife Li Shihua, both professors at the university's department of human genetics.
Quoting unnamed members of Li Xiaojiang's research team, the website said the university shut down his laboratory on May 16 while he was on leave in China, seizing computers and documents and questioning other staff about the professors' ties with China.
The profiles of both professors have been removed from the university's website along with the homepage for Emory's Li Laboratory.
The action came after the NIH, the main funding agency for biomedical and public health research in the US, started investigating the foreign ties of NIH-funded researchers at more than 55 US institutions, including Emory University.
NIH director Francis Collins told a US Senate hearing in early April that the investigation found "egregious instances" of violation of rules for funding disclosure and alleged intellectual property theft.
Li Xiaojiang had worked at Emory for more than two decades and led the university's research on gene-editing technology, establishing on a pig model for treating Huntington's disease, a fatal genetic disorder that causes the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in the brain.
He had been selected as a member of the Thousand Talents Programme, a Chinese government-backed scheme to encourage leading professionals to work in China. He previously worked for the Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Reports on the website of Jinan University in Guangzhou indicate that Li Xiaojiang heads a research team at the university, where his wife is also a visiting scholar.
In Atlanta, Emory denied that Chinese researchers had been singled out.
"It is important to note that Emory remains committed to the free exchange of ideas and research and to our vital collaborations with researchers from around the world," university spokesman Vince Dollard said.
"At the same time, Emory also takes very seriously its obligation to be a good steward of federal research dollars and to ensure compliance with all funding disclosure and other requirements."
Chinese academics, engineers and companies have faced new challenges as tensions between China and the US have risen.
The NIH declined to reveal internal deliberations about a specific case, but said that in general it identified threats in three ways, including notification by the FBI, an NIH-funded institution or an anonymous tip.
"Importantly, individuals that are being reviewed are not all of Chinese ethnicity. However, China's Thousands Talents Program is a known prominent player," the NIH Office of Extramural Research said in a statement.
The NIH leadership was sensitive to the concerns expressed by Chinese researchers and stated their commitment to avoiding overreaction, stigmatisation, harassment, and profiling, it said.
Washington denied the 10-year visas of a number of leading Chinese experts over allegations that they were spying for Chinese intelligence agencies. And, in addition to blacklisting Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies, the administration of US President Donald Trump is considering blocking more Chinese technology companies from the American market, according to US media reports.
On Thursday, Yale University president Peter Salovey urged US federal agencies to "clarify concerns they have about international academic exchanges".
"In recent weeks, tensions in US-China relations and increased scrutiny of academic exchanges have added to a sense of unease among many international students and scholars here at Yale and at universities across the country," Salovey said.
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