A professor at the University of Kansas was indicted Wednesday on federal fraud charges for allegedly failing to disclose a full-time employment contract 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's 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 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 Tao comes amid increasing concerns among federal research agencies and national security officials about alleged efforts by China to steal the fruits of U.S. 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 U.S. 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 C. Demers said in a news release announcing the charges. “Any potential conflicts of commitment by a researcher must be disclosed as required by law and university policies.”
The indictment alleges that 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 program is sponsored by the Chinese government to attract and recruit scientific talent.
The indictment alleges that 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 U.S. government grant or contract funds, which included funds not only for research but also for Tao's salary," the indictment states.
Tao's research at KU was funded through two Department of Energy contracts and four National Science Foundation contracts. Tao is accused of fraudulently receiving more than $37,000 in salary paid for by DOE and NSF.
Court papers did not list a lawyer for Tao, and his published KU office number was not working Thursday. Messages sent Thursday to his KU email account, a LinkedIn account in his name and a phone number located via a public records search were not returned.
The University's Response
Douglas A. 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. Tao has been placed on paid administrative leave.
In his statement, Girod cited a recent op-ed published in Inside Higher Ed by the presidents of the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities affirming the vital role Chinese and other international scholars play in America's research enterprise.
"At the same time, we also have been reminded of the importance of collaborating with federal law enforcement agencies," Girod said. "We remain vigilant in our own internal efforts to maintain the integrity and security of our research, including the research we undertake on behalf of federal research-granting agencies and, ultimately, U.S. taxpayers," Girod said. "Our Office of Global Operations and Security serves as an important resource for faculty and staff to help them conduct international work in a safe and secure way. The office works to manage and mitigate risk and protect intellectual property while synchronizing efforts related to international work, export compliance and security operations."
"After the formation of that office in summer 2018, we looked at our policies and procedures that regulate how we conduct research and exchange information in an increasingly interconnected world and considered ways they could be improved," Girod added.
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 academe about whether ethnically Chinese scholars are being racially profiled and targeted for additional scrutiny. In a June statement, Massachusetts Institute of Technology president L. Rafael Reif reported that "faculty members, postdocs, research staff and students tell me that, in their dealings with government agencies, they now feel unfairly scrutinized, stigmatized and on edge -- because of their Chinese ethnicity alone."
As U.S.-China relations worsen, some have also raised concerns about whether scholars stand to be penalized for forms of scientific collaboration with China -- such as participation in the Chinese government's talent programs -- 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 programs "encourage theft of intellectual property from U.S. institutions."
Such programs, 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 firsthand 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 programs 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," 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."
KU's policies governing conflicts of interest can be found here, and the policy relating to conflict of time commitment appears to have last been updated in 2017.
"All KU employees are informed of their disclosure obligations during onboarding, and they are reminded each year during the annual reporting period," a university spokesman said. "Additionally, researchers are required to certify that their compliance reporting is up to date before submitting every proposal. Research integrity staff who facilitate conflict of interest reporting deliver in-person training to departments and centers upon request and through the annual research administration training program."