A federal crackdown on professors’ undisclosed outside activities is achieving what China has long struggled to do: spur Chinese scientists to return home. In this crisis, it’s costing the U.S. intellectual firepower.
This article was co-published with The Chronicle of Higher Education.
On the fourth floor of the University of Florida cancer research building, the once-bustling laboratory overseen by professor Weihong Tan is in disarray. White lab coats are strewn over workbenches. Storage drums and boxes, including some marked with biohazard warnings, are scattered across the floor. A pink note stuck to a machine that makes copies of DNA samples indicates the device is broken.
No one is here on this weekday afternoon in February. On a shelf, wedged next to instruction manuals and binders of lab records, is a reminder of bygone glory: a group photo of Tan surrounded by more than two dozen smiling students and employees.
As the Florida lab sat vacant, a different scene unfolded half a world away in China, where a team of 300 scientists and researchers worked furiously to develop a fast, easy test for COVID-19. The leader of that timely project? Tan, the former Florida researcher.
The 59-year-old Tan is a stark example of the intellectual firepower fleeing the U.S. as a result of a Trump administration crackdown on university researchers with ties to China. Tan abruptly left Florida in 2019 during an investigation into his alleged failure to fully disclose Chinese academic appointments and funding. He moved to Hunan University in south-central China, where he now conducts his vital research.
Tan, a chemistry professor whose research has focused on diagnosing and treating cancer, quickly pivoted to working on a coronavirus test when the outbreak began in China. Boosted by a Chinese government grant, he teamed up with researchers at two other universities in China and a biotechnology company to create a test that produces results in 40 minutes and can be performed in a doctor’s office or in non-medical settings like airport screening areas, according to a 13-page booklet detailing the test’s development and benefits. It has been tried successfully on more than 200 samples from hospitals and checkpoints, according to the booklet, which Tan shared with a former Florida colleague. It’s not clear how widely the test is being used in China.
Epidemiologists say that testing is vital to mitigate the spread of the virus. But the U.S. has lagged well behind China, South Korea, and Italy in the number of people tested. It’s hard to know if Tan’s test would have made a difference. The slow U.S. ramp-up has been blamed largely on bureaucratic barriers and a shortage of chemical agents needed for testing.
A star researcher funded by the National Institutes of Health, Tan taught for a quarter century at Florida and raised two sons in Gainesville. He was also a participant in the Thousand Talents program, China’s aggressive effort to lure top scientists from U.S. universities, and had been working part time at Hunan University for even longer than he had taught at Florida. Last year, alerted by NIH, Florida began investigating his outside activities.
Tan declined to answer questions about his departure from Florida or his new test, but he provided documentation that his department chairman at Florida was “supportive” of his research in China as recently as 2015. He is one of three University of Florida researchers — along with others from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and the University of Louisville — who relocated to China while under investigation for allegedly hiding Chinese funding or affiliations with universities there.
Such nondisclosure may well be pervasive. A ProPublica analysis found more than 20 previously unreported examples of Thousand Talents professors who appear not to have fully revealed their moonlighting in China to their U.S. universities or NIH.
NIH has contacted 84 institutions regarding 180 scientists whom it suspects of hiding outside activities or funding, and it has referred 27 of them for federal investigation, said Michael Lauer, the agency’s deputy director for extramural research. “There’s no reason why the U.S. government should be funding scientists who are engaged in unethical behavior. It doesn’t matter how brilliant they are,” said Lauer, who declined to discuss specific professors under scrutiny. “If they don’t have integrity, we can’t trust them for anything. How can we be sure that the data they’re producing is accurate?”
Yet the government’s investigations and prosecutions of scientists for nondisclosure — a violation previously handled within universities and often regarded as minor — may prove counterproductive. The exodus of Tan and his colleagues highlights a disturbing irony about the U.S. crackdown; it is unwittingly helping China achieve a long-frustrated goal of luring back top scientific talent.
Thousand Talents aimed to reverse China’s brain drain to the West by offering elite Chinese scientists premier salaries and lab facilities to return home permanently. Finding relatively few takers, it let participants like Tan keep their U.S. jobs and work in China on the side.
By investigating Tan and other Chinese researchers for nondisclosure, the U.S. government is accomplishing what Thousand Talents has struggled to do. None of the professors identified in this article have been charged with stealing or inappropriately sharing intellectual property. Yet in the name of safeguarding American science, federal agencies are driving out innovators, who will then make their discoveries and insights in China instead of the U.S. The potential drawbacks hark back to an episode in the McCarthy era, when a brilliant rocket scientist at the California Institute of Technology was deported by the U.S. for supposed Communist sympathies and became the father of China’s missile program.
John Brown, the FBI’s assistant director of counterintelligence, told the U.S. Senate in November that participants in Thousand Talents and other Chinese talent programs “are often incentivized to transfer to China the research they conduct in the United States, as well as other proprietary information to which they can gain access, and remain a significant threat to the United States.”
A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., disputed such characterizations. “The purpose of China’s ‘Thousand Talents Plan’ is to promote talent flow between China and other countries and to galvanize international cooperation in scientific and technological innovation,” Fang Hong said. While firmly opposing any “breach of scientific integrity or ethics … we also condemn the attempt to describe the behaviors of individual researchers” as “systematic” intellectual property theft by the Chinese government. “It is extremely irresponsible and ill-intentioned to link individual behaviors to China’s talent plan.”
Steven Pei, a University of Houston physics professor and former chair of the advocacy group United Chinese Americans, said that both countries have gone too far. “The Chinese government overreached and the American government overreacted,” Pei said. “China tried to recruit but it was unsuccessful. Now we help them do what they cannot do on their own.”
Pei added that U.S. universities are failing to protect their Chinese faculty: “When the pressure comes down, they throw the researchers under the bus.”
NIH has long viewed collaborations with China as a boon for biomedical research, even initiating a formal partnership with China’s National Natural Science Foundation in 2010. But it became concerned in 2016 when it learned from the FBI that an Asian faculty member at MD Anderson had shared federal grant proposals he was reviewing with researchers at other institutions — a violation of NIH rules.
Examining the grant applications of its federally funded researchers, NIH found many undisclosed foreign ties, particularly with research institutions in China. Some researchers were accepting dual appointments at Chinese universities and publishing results of U.S.-funded research under their foreign affiliation. Often, these foreign positions were not reported to the NIH or even the researchers’ own American universities.
In August 2018, the NIH launched an investigation to ensure that its researchers weren’t “double dipping” by receiving foreign funds for NIH-funded work or diverting intellectual property produced by federally backed research to other countries. The NIH found at least 75 researchers with ties to foreign talent programs who were also responsible for reviewing grant proposals. In some cases, Lauer said, Thousand Talents scientists with access as peer reviewers to confidential grant applications have downloaded them and emailed them to China. Other researchers have disclosed consulting or teaching in China but haven’t acknowledged that they’ve signed an employment contract with a Chinese university or are heading a lab, he said. NIH gave the names of “individuals of possible concern” to the researchers’ institutions but did not make them public.
To gauge the extent of the problem, ProPublica matched Thousand Talents recipients identified on Chinese-language websites with their disclosures to their universities and grant applications to NIH, which we obtained through public records requests. We found at least 14 researchers who apparently did not disclose foreign affiliations to their U.S. universities, which included the University of Wisconsin, Stony Brook University and Louisiana State University. We couldn’t determine if these researchers were also on NIH’s confidential list.
Of 23 Thousand Talents recipients in our survey who have sought NIH funding, none reported conflicts of interest with Chinese universities to the agency. Just three revealed these positions in the bio sections of their grant applications. Because NIH redacted foreign funding from the applications it provided to us, citing personal privacy restrictions, we couldn’t tell if the researchers reported any grants from institutions in China.
It’s not always easy to define or prosecute theft of intellectual property in academia, especially if the research is considered basic and doesn’t require a security clearance. Unlike corporations that protect trade secrets, universities see science as an open, global enterprise and promote international collaborations. Practices such as photographing another research team’s specially designed lab equipment may be considered unethical by some, but they aren’t necessarily unlawful. Thus the U.S. government is trying to clamp down on suspected intellectual property theft by targeting nondisclosure.
Yet the link between hiding Thousand Talents affiliations and stealing research secrets may be tenuous. Universities bear some responsibility for the nondisclosure, because they are supposed to certify the accuracy of information supplied to NIH. Until recently, many schools were lax in enforcing disclosure rules. “It’s fair to say, at some universities, they have not really been paying attention to how their faculty spend their time,” Lauer said. One professor was away for 150 days a year and the university didn’t notice, he said.
Non-Chinese scientists, including doctors paid by pharmaceutical companies, also underreported outside income. Nor did universities want to restrict partnerships with Chinese universities; in the prevailing culture of globalization, they encouraged foreign collaborations and sought to open branches in China to boost their international prestige and attract outstanding, full-tuition-paying students.
Now times have changed, and Chinese scientists at U.S. universities are trapped in the backwash. Even those who rejected overtures from China have been hounded. Xifeng Wu, an epidemiological researcher, worked at MD Anderson for nearly three decades and amassed an enormous dataset to help cancer researchers understand patient histories. She twice turned down invitations to join Thousand Talents. But she collaborated with and accepted honorary positions at research institutions in China, where she grew up and attended medical school. Although she said she earned no income from these posts, NIH identified her as a concern, and MD Anderson found that she did not always fully disclose her Chinese affiliations.
In early 2019, she left MD Anderson — one of at least four researchers who were pushed out of the center in the wake of the federal investigations. She has become dean of the School of Public Health, with a well-equipped laboratory, at Zhejiang University in southeast China.
Dong Liang, Wu’s husband and the chair of the pharmaceutical and environmental health sciences department at Texas Southern University, felt that MD Anderson buckled under pressure from NIH, which provided the institution with more than $145 million in federal grants in 2018.
“A few years back, they wanted the collaborations [with China],” said Liang. “And now, they take it back.” The disclosure rules, said Liang, weren’t clear, “and now it becomes a violation.”
Professors who were in the process of being fired could have exercised their rights to a hearing before a faculty panel as well as “several rounds of peer discussions,” but they instead left “on their own volition,” MD Anderson spokeswoman Brette Peyton said. “As the recipient of significant NIH funding,” MD Anderson had a responsibility to follow up on the agency’s concerns, or risk losing federal money, she said.
Baylor College of Medicine in Houston took a less punitive approach than MD Anderson. When NIH alerted the Baylor College of Medicine that at least four researchers there — all ethnically Chinese — erred in their disclosures, Baylor corrected the documents and allowed them to continue working.
China began sending students to the U.S. in the late 1970s in the hope that they would return with American know-how and foster China’s technological prowess. But, especially after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, many of the students stayed in the U.S. after earning their degrees.
Established in 2008, Thousand Talents was intended to lure prominent scientists of Chinese ethnicity under age 55 back to China for at least half the year with generous salaries and research funds and facilities, as well as perks such as housing, medical care, jobs for spouses and schools for children. Some Thousand Talents employment contracts require members to sign nondisclosure agreements related to their research and employment with Chinese institutions, according to a November 2019 report by the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
“The Chinese government has been the most assertive government in the world in introducing policies targeted at triggering a reverse brain drain,” David Zweig, a professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Huiyao Wang, director general of the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, wrote in 2012.
The program succeeded in attracting 7,000 foreign scientists and researchers as of 2017, the Senate subcommittee reported. But it had trouble enticing professors at elite U.S. universities, who were reluctant to uproot their families and leave their tenured sinecures. It created a second tier for recruits who were “essentially unwilling to return full-time,” Zweig and Wang wrote. They could keep their U.S. jobs and come to China for a month or two. Complaints arose in China about “fake returnees” who “work nominally in China for six months” but “in fact, most of them are still abroad,” according to a 2014 op-ed on the BBC News Chinese website.
Scandals marred the program’s reputation in the U.S. In 2014, Ohio State contacted the FBI about engineering professor Rongxing Li, who had fled to China. Li, a Thousand Talents member, allegedly had access to restricted NASA information. The U.S. attorney’s office did not bring charges against Li, who is teaching at Tongji University in Shanghai. Another Thousand Talents member, Kang Zhang, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of California, San Diego, resigned last year after reports that he failed to disclose being the primary shareholder of a Chinese company whose focus overlapped with his UC research. No charges were filed against Zhang, now a professor at Macau University of Science and Technology.
Struggling to attract top researchers, Thousand Talents also reached out to non-Chinese scientists, like Charles Lieber, the Harvard chemistry chairman charged in January with making false statements to the U.S. government by denying his involvement with Thousand Talents and with Wuhan University of Technology. His three-year Thousand Talents contract called for Wuhan to pay Lieber $50,000 a month plus more than $1.5 million for a research lab, according to the Department of Justice. Lieber has not yet entered a plea. His attorney, Peter Levitt, declined comment.
“In the last five years, there has been a definite deliberate move toward targeting non-ethnic Chinese,” said Frank Figliuzzi, former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence. “They’ve been getting so many rejections from their own people who don’t want to go back home and have fallen in love with their Western culture and their life. Or their wife won’t go back. Or their kids won’t go back.
“The other thing that we’ve seen, which I think is very troubling, ‘Hey, you don’t have to come back home full time.’ In the intel community, we call that a RIP, recruitment in place.”
Staying in the U.S. meant that Thousand Talents recipients had to report their Chinese positions to their American universities. Some didn’t. Richard Hsung, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Wisconsin, affirmed annually on disclosure forms that he had “no reportable outside activities.” He acknowledged in an interview that, from 2010 to 2013, he was in Thousand Talents and worked part time as a visiting professor at Tianjin University, which has 25,000 students and is 70 miles southeast of Beijing.
He said that he didn’t mention the Tianjin position because the disclosure forms confused him. He includes “National Thousand Talent Distinguished Visiting Professor at Tianjin University” among his honors on the faculty website. “I was not flaunting it, but I was not hiding it,” he said.
His stints in China helped the University of Wisconsin, he said. “When there’s an opportunity such as this one, you take it, it expands the visibility, it expands interacting with more students in training, and they come here to help us.”
Also unreported was Hsung’s relationship with a biotech company in Shanghai. In corporate records, Shanghai Fangnan Biological Technology Co. says that it “was founded by the national ‘Thousand Talents Plan’ specially invited experts,” and it names Hsung as a director. Hsung said he was unaware of being listed as a board member and is asking the company to remove his name. He has consulted for the company “from time to time” but is compensated for expenses only, he said. “I have not been involved in any of their projects nor have they supported my research here,” he added in an email.
University of Wisconsin spokeswoman Meredith McGlone said that Hsung should have reported his job at Tianjin on outside activities forms, as well as an “unexpected honorarium of less than $5,000” from the Shanghai biotech firm. He has since updated his disclosure form to reflect the honorarium, she said. While the university has no “uniform penalty” for nondisclosure, she said, the appropriate response in cases, like Hsung’s, where there is no “evidence of intent to mislead” would be “additional training and perhaps a letter to the personnel file.”
The university convened a working group last year to “consider policies and practices intended to bolster security without sacrificing the free exchange of ideas,” McGlone said. It then added a question to the disclosure form: “Do you have an ongoing relationship with a foreign research institute or foreign entity?”
Each year, the University of Florida’s chemistry department evaluates its 40 or so faculty members by criteria that include amounts raised for research funding and the number and impact of studies published. Weihong Tan, who joined the department in 1996, was usually ranked among the top three professors every year, said a department official who asked not to be identified.
Tan’s research group developed a new way of generating molecules that bind to targeted cells, as a possible approach to identifying and treating cancers. He collaborated with researchers in other departments and became close with top deans and research officials on campus. He was popular with students. Each week, dozens of graduate and postgraduate researchers lined up in the hall outside his office, waiting to meet with him. He also won prestigious chemistry awards and developed an international reputation.
While at Florida, Tan maintained a connection to Hunan University in China, where he studied as an undergraduate. His curriculum vitae states he was an adjunct professor at the school from 1993 through at least 2019, when he left Florida. The part-time teaching job is the CV’s only reference to any professional work in China.
In his annual disclosures to Florida, Tan did report positions and income in China, but not everything alleged by university investigators. In 2017, he said he was working 10 hours a week at Hunan for a salary of $30,000. In 2018, he said his hours had doubled to 20 a week, for $50,000. In 2019, he reported working a total of 20 hours a week for Hunan and the Institute of Molecular Medicine at Renji Hospital in Shanghai. His combined pay from the positions was $120,000, according to his form.
The association with Hunan began during a gap in Tan’s resume — between receiving a 1992 doctoral degree from the University of Michigan and starting postdoctoral work in 1994 at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory.
In recent years, according to colleagues, Tan’s work in China intensified. He was making frequent trips there, sometimes traveling twice a month from Gainesville, one said. Tan told colleagues that his research in China complemented his Florida work, and that it was easier to conduct testing on people in China than in the U.S. His research in Florida focused on basic science testing that didn’t involve patients.
Tan knew his increasing workload in China was putting a strain on his full-time position in the U.S. He told a colleague he was considering asking for a leave of absence from Florida. It’s unclear if he did request a leave.
In January 2019, the NIH notified Florida that Tan might have undisclosed affiliations with foreign institutions as well as foreign research funding. The university then launched its own inquiry. It provided investigator notes regarding Tan and two other researchers allegedly involved in Chinese talent programs to a special state legislative committee reviewing foreign influence on publicly funded research. Those notes do not name the faculty members under investigation, instead referring to them by numbers such as “faculty 1.” The details for faculty 1 — including date of hire, area of research, department and Chinese affiliations — match those of Tan.
Faculty members two and three appear to be Lin Yang, an NIH-funded professor of biomedical engineering, and Chen Ling, an up-and-coming pediatric cancer researcher.
Florida hired Yang from the University of Kentucky in 2014 as part of a “Preeminence Initiative” to boost its ranking among public universities. Yang traveled to Beijing for a Thousand Talents interview in 2016, according to the university’s investigative notes. The following year, he was selected for the program at a Chinese university.
Yang resigned his Florida position last year after the university began looking into his alleged failure to disclose his association with China’s Thousand Talents program. University investigators also allege that he hid being chief executive, founder and owner of an unidentified China-based company.
In an email, Yang said he disputes many of Florida’s findings. He said he applied for a talent program but then turned it down. He said he never had any foreign grants or academic appointments in China while employed by Florida. Yang’s attorney, Peg O’Connor, said the University of Florida began a push in 2010 to encourage overseas collaborations. “To be punished for doing what the university called on you to do doesn’t make sense to me,” she said. “The effect of this is universities are bleeding good people.”
Ling, a part-time research associate professor, won multiple grants to study gene therapy techniques that target the most common pediatric liver cancer. “Early in a very promising career, Ling is already making great strides in the development of innovative therapies for cancer,” the chairman of the medical school’s pediatrics department said in a 2012 press release.
Ling left Florida last year. The university investigative notes that appear to refer to Lin allege that he failed to inform NIH that he was participating in a Chinese government sponsored talent program, and that he received an unreported research grant from a Chinese foundation.
However, Ling did report working at Fudan University in Shanghai to University of Florida officials in 2018. His disclosure, which can be viewed at ProPublica’s Dollars for Profs site, shows that Fudan paid him $53,732 for activities that included “establishing a regular molecular biological laboratory, conducting gene therapy research, teaching curriculum, publishing manuscripts.” He indicated that the activity would require eight months of work each year. It’s unclear if Florida officials relayed this information to NIH.
Ling, who did not respond to emails seeking comment, is continuing his research as a professor at Fudan. A former Florida colleague described him as “very smart” but somewhat naive in dealing with conflict of interest issues. “I don’t think he did anything with malicious intent,” said the colleague. “He paid a heavy price for this.”
Mengsheng Qiu, a neurobiologist at the University of Louisville, not only disclosed a part-time position in China to his department, but he even accepted a pay cut at Louisville to offset his foreign income. Nevertheless, NIH targeted him.
Qiu, 56, received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in China and his doctorate from the University of Iowa in 1992. After spending five years as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, he joined the Louisville faculty in 1997 and was tenured in 2001.
Qiu has received several NIH grants over the past two decades. Fred Roisen, the department’s former chair, described Qiu as an excellent and dedicated researcher. “He had a very active lab that published extensively,” Roisen said. “His students were highly sought after for postdocs at all the best schools in the U.S. Some were Chinese and some were not. I could only give him the highest recommendation. His lab, if I went in Saturday and Sunday, there were always people working there.”
Qiu joined the Thousand Talents program in 2009, taking a part-time job at Hangzhou Normal University, which announced that it had hired him as its first scholar “under a high-level creative talents program” that aimed to “attract elites from all walks of life at home and abroad.” Someone at Hangzhou sent the announcement to Louisville administrators, who did not know that Qiu was seeking a position in China and were taken aback, according to a friend of Qiu’s. The friend said that Qiu had not informed Louisville because terms of the Hangzhou job were still being negotiated.
Louisville and Qiu then agreed to reduce his salary to compensate for his time in China. “We negotiated a pay cut that was proportional to the time he was away,” Roisen said. “If he was taking two months off, that was two months’ pay you don’t get.”
Roisen said he didn’t know about Qiu’s participation in the Thousand Talents program. “I just knew he had access to a lab in China. I never had a negative thought connected with him whatsoever.” By working in China, Qiu “was trying to get additional help for projects,” Roisen said. “Some tissues were not readily available in the U.S.” The current chair, William Guido, declined comment.
His wife, Ling Qiu, said that each time Qiu visited China, he received the university’s approval. “They wanted him to report everything,” she said. “He said, ’I did.’ Every time I go to China, I tell you.”
“He is a good citizen,” she said. “He does not even use a coupon if it is expired.” Thousand Talents paid for his travel to China and his work there, she said, but it wasn’t big money. “I wish,” she said. She added in an email, “He did not do anything wrong but I don’t know the details about his research activity.”
In recent years, a Louisville colleague said, Qiu had a “lag” in federal funding, and NIH turned down one of his grant applications. “I suspect, and we all felt, that this might have been due to him putting a lot of emphasis on his Chinese involvement in those laboratories and less here,” the colleague said.
The colleague added that at Qiu’s most recent career review, “We did think it was interesting he managed to publish 17 papers in the previous five years, some in prestigious journals, with such a small laboratory. I think some of it was done in China. That might be why they’re looking into it.”
People close to Qiu said that the probe has been going on at least since the summer of 2019, and that he met for half a day on campus with investigators. University of Louisville spokesman John Karman III declined comment, citing “an ongoing investigation involving this former faculty member.” Also citing the investigation, Louisville declined to provide any outside activity forms that Qiu submitted to the university.
Last December, Qiu retired from Louisville. He’s now head of the Life Science Research Institute at Hangzhou Normal University. Friends said that he preferred working in China because he helped set up the institute there and the lab conditions and students were better than at Louisville. He felt unjustly overshadowed at Louisville by more prominent Ivy Leaguers in his field. When Hangzhou Normal renewed Qiu’s 10-year appointment in 2019, a friend said, it asked him to become full-time, forcing him to choose between China and Louisville. “He must have balanced the two,” the friend said. “Finally, he came up with a choice.”
Qiu’s wife, a doctor who was in private practice in the U.S., said that the investigation drove him out. It made him “very, very depressed,” she said. He told her that it reminded him of China’s persecution of intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution. “They sent me an email and asked me a bunch of questions,” he told her. “Maybe I go to jail.”
Qiu declined comment through his wife. She said in a February email that he was quarantined at home in Hangzhou because of the coronavirus, while she was fighting the epidemic at an international hospital in Shanghai. “We try to comfort each other by phone or video chat,” she said. “We are not able to see each other since my job is high risk.”
In 2015, when Weihong Tan was up for election to the Chinese National Academy of Sciences, his chemistry chairman at the University of Florida recommended him and lauded his ongoing research in China.
“We are very happy to see his great success at Hunan University in research and education,” William Dolbier wrote in the letter provided by Tan. “We are very supportive of his research and educational activities there.”
Tan’s positions were also publicly listed on the web before NIH notified the University of Florida that there might be an issue.
The English language website of Hunan University, beginning in at least March 2018, listed Tan as a vice president and director of a chemistry lab. According to the site, Tan had run the lab since 2010 and had been a vice president of the school since August 2017. The school also indicated Tan was a full professor there and supervised doctoral students. Tan appeared in an English-language video in 2017 to promote a textbook he edited and described himself as a distinguished professor of chemistry at both Florida and Hunan.
On several occasions, Hunan University publicly lauded Tan. In 2017, when he was named an associate editor of the Journal of American Chemical Society, both the University of Florida and Hunan University put out press releases announcing the appointment. Florida officials at the time were apparently unaware of Tan’s positions in China, and the school’s release makes no mention of them. Hunan, on the other hand, lists his position in Florida.
Tan was also named an “honored professor” in 2017 at the East China University of Science and Technology. A story about a ceremony marking the appointment on that university’s website includes photographs of Tan touring school labs and meeting with faculty. It lists him as holding several academic posts in China as well as his University of Florida professorship.
After NIH notified Florida at the beginning of 2019 about a potential problem with Tan, the university’s office of research began reviewing Tan’s emails. In correspondence, Tan acknowledged his Hunan jobs, according to the notes. He also allegedly used his Florida email account to conduct Hunan business.
The investigators found evidence that Tan had significant ties to Chinese government-sponsored talent programs and helped recruit U.S. researchers to those programs. The emails also indicated Tan received at least four research grants from Chinese government programs and didn’t tell the NIH about them. Of all of Tan’s extensive university and government ties with China, the only item he appears to have disclosed to the NIH and Florida was an adjunct teaching position at Hunan.
When Tan suddenly resigned his position in Florida last year, he told colleagues he was going to work full time in China but was vague about the reasons for leaving after almost a quarter century on campus. Administrators scrambled to find new mentors for the more than dozen graduate and postgraduate students working in his two labs on campus. The move was so abrupt that Tan’s wife stayed behind in Gainesville, according to colleagues.
Tan didn’t answer questions sent to him by email, although he did acknowledge receiving them. A federal investigation of Tan’s relationships in China is ongoing, according to the investigative summary provided by the university to state legislators.
The University of Florida said in a statement that it has taken steps to prevent other professors from joining Thousand Talents and concealing foreign positions. As a result of a new risk assessment process for detecting foreign influence that it introduced in 2018, it said, Florida is denying most requests from faculty to participate in foreign talent programs.
The university said it “maintains a robust and vigilant program to safeguard our technology and intellectual property from undue foreign influence, and to extend appropriate oversight to UF activities (and those of its faculty members) in connection with foreign organizations.” A spokesman declined to answer questions about individual professors, citing ongoing investigations.
William Dolbier, the former chemistry chairman at Florida and now an emeritus professor, said Tan’s departure could have been avoided if he had disclosed all of his work in China. “He was not a money guy,” Dolbier said. “He was not out to steal from the United States. The development of these drugs was his primary focus and goal.” Dolbier added that Tan told him he would be glad to try to make his COVID-19 test available in the U.S.
Jeff Kao and Doris Burke contributed reporting.