Award-winning epidemiologist Xifeng Wu, a naturalized American citizen, has stepped down as the director of the Center for Public Health and Translational Genomics at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in January following an investigation into her ties with China which lasted for three months.
Wu’s resignation came following accusations of secretly aiding cancer research in China, which can be deemed as “un-American.” In addition to Wu, three other top Chinese American scientists from MD Anderson have left the cancer center in recent months.
According to Bloomberg, FBI agents have been reading private emails of cancer researchers, detaining and inspecting Chinese scientists at airports, and showing up to people’s homes to ask about their loyalties.
This crackdown of Chinese American scientists is connected to the Trump administration’s push to counter potential Chinese influence at U.S. research institutions. While the aim of this is to stop China’s theft of U.S. innovation and intellectual property, it can also hinder the progress of finding new medical treatments.
The FBI is now calling for institutions such as universities and hospitals to be vigilant when working with Chinese business partners or employees who could be “nontraditional” information collectors. And spy arrest figures easily reflect this increase in distrust of Chinese Americans within recent years.
Between 2009 and 2015, 52% of defendants indicted under the U.S. Economic Espionage Act had Chinese names; this figure was just 17% between 1997 and 2009. Despite the steep increase in the number of cases, the amount of evidence stayed stagnant.
According to Bloomberg, FBI agents arrested Xiaoxing XiFBI agents arrested Xiaoxing Xi, a physicist at Temple University, in front of his wife and children after storming into his home and holding him at gunpoint. However, it was later proven that the evidence they had against Xi of sharing superconductor technology with China was practically nonexistent after his lawyers stated that the systems in question were publicly available and old. The charges were soon dropped, but as a result, Xi lost most of his funding and still suffers from fears of the U.S. government spying on his every move.
Similarly, the FBI have questioned at least four Chinese American employees at MD Anderson in their own homes after retrieving emails from 23 accounts. However, during these talks “the agents were less focused on national security issues—say, espionage or trade secret theft—than on the more soul-searching subject of loyalty,” writes Bloomberg.
The investigations on Wu specifically, led by Max Weber, the center’s compliance chief, was based on “adverse inferences” according to Bloomberg. In one instance, Weber wrote “Given Wu’s failure to appear at her interview, I infer that this fact is true,” without presenting additional solid evidence.
In Wu’s case, she developed close ties with international researchers through her work and was encouraged to make connections, even in China, by MD Anderson who forged sister relationships with various cancer research centers around the world.
This was not considered unusual as in the world of cancer research, information on findings are made public and researchers collaborate and form relationships at academic conferences. Cancer prevention and cure isn’t about developing a patentable product, and according to Bloomberg, it can not be stolen as it’s about saving lives.
During her investigation, which reportedly lacked evidence and a proper accusation, Wu was placed on unpaid leave pending disciplinary action and eventually quit on January 15th.
Randy Legerski, a retired vice chair of MD Anderson’s genetics department told Bloomberg, “Innocent yet meaningful scientific collaborations have been portrayed as somehow corrupt and detrimental to American interests. Nothing could be further from the truth,” regarding the investigation against Wu that led to her resignation.