Former Professor Sentenced to 37 Months in Prison for Using Federal Grants to Aid China’s Medical Research

Former Professor Sentenced to 37 Months in Prison for Using Federal Grants to Aid China’s Medical Research
A sign for the Department of Justice, in Washington, on Jan. 12, 2021. (Sarah Silbiger-Pool/Getty Images)
Cathy He

A biomedical professor has been sentenced to 37 months in prison for carrying out a scheme to use millions of dollars in federal grant money to advance research in China, according to the Justice Department.

Zheng Songguo, a former professor at Ohio State University (OSU), pleaded guilty in November to lying on National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant applications in order to use $4.1 million in research grants to develop the fields of rheumatology and immunology for China, the department (DOJ) said.

He was arrested last May in Anchorage, Alaska, as he was preparing to board a charter flight to China in an attempt to flee the United States, the DOJ said. When taken into custody, he was carrying multiple items, including two laptops, three cell phones, several USB drives, several bars of silver, expired Chinese passports for his family, and deeds for property in China, prosecutors said.

The judge also ordered Zheng to pay more than $3.4 million in restitution to the NIH and about $413,000 to OSU.

“For years, the defendant concealed his participation in Chinese government talent recruitment programs, hiding his affiliations with at least five research institutions in China,” Assistant Director Alan E. Kohler Jr. of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division said in a statement.

The case is among a string of federal actions targeting academics who collaborate with Chinese institutions while receiving research funding from U.S. taxpayers. Many of these cases involve researchers who allegedly hid their participation in Chinese state-backed recruitment programs, such as the “Thousand Talents Plan,” which U.S. officials say serves as a vehicle for the transfer of U.S. research and know-how to China.

“American research funding is provided by the American taxpayer for the benefit of American society—not as an illicit gift to the Chinese government,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers for the DOJ’s National Security Division.

Zheng admitted to making false statements in his NIH grant applications, hiding his participation in Chinese state-sponsored talent plans, and masking his collaboration with a Chinese university, prosecutors said.

The former professor led a team conducting autoimmune research at OSU and Pennsylvania State University. According to court documents, while employed at OSU, Zheng was also working at the Third Affiliated Hospital at Sun Yat-Sen University, a state-controlled school in southern China’s Guangdong Province. The university’s homepage named him as an expert under the Thousand Talents Plan, court documents said. The website is no longer accessible.

Prosecutors said that Zheng had been participating in a Chinese talent plan since 2013. Since then, he used research conducted in the United States to benefit the Chinese regime.

According to court documents, at times, Zheng was receiving money from both the NIH and China’s National Natural Science Foundation of China, which is managed by the Ministry of Science and Technology.

Zheng didn’t disclose these conflicts of interest to his U.S. employers or the NIH.

Last June, a former chair of Harvard University’s chemistry department was indicted on charges of making false statements about funding he received from the Thousand Talents Plan while working on sensitive U.S. research. He has pleaded not guilty.
Cathy He is the politics editor at the Washington D.C. bureau. She was previously an editor for U.S.-China and a reporter covering U.S.-China relations.
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