What is Thousand Talent Program? Find out the truth behind Chinese scientists working in US

Thousand Talent Program members have stolen the US-funded Department of Energy research for Chinese institutions

Thousand Talents Program is China's elaborated effort to recruit overseas researchers to send their skills home which later worried the US, which saw the TTP as a mode to encourage economic espionage and theft of intellectual property, one of the major issues behind the trade war between China and the US. It was also claimed by the US officials that Beijing's so-called military-civil fusion strategy also elevates the threat.

As per a report published by US Senate Homeland Security, TTP members have stolen the US-funded Department of Energy research for Chinese institutions. Now the National Institutes of Health is investigating the loss of intellectual property and capital to China. But, among all these issues and vulnerability a different scene unfolded half a world away in China, where around 300 scientists and researchers started working to find an easy test for COVID-19 and the leader of this project is University of Florida's former researcher Weihong Tan.

Chinese researchers in the US

While at Florida, Tan maintained a connection to Hunan University, In his annual disclosures to Florida, Tan did report positions and income in China, as his curriculum vitae states that he was an adjunct professor at a Chinese school from 1993 till he joined the University of Florida.

The 59-year-old researcher abruptly left Florida in 2019 during an investigation into his alleged failure to disclose Chinese academic appointments and funding. Tan moved to Hunan University in China, where the chemistry professor now conducts his vital research. When the Novel Coronavirus outbreak took place in China's Wuhan, he was pivoted to working on a Novel Coronavirus test.

Sponsored by the Chinese government, to find an effective test for the COVID-19, Tam joined a team of researchers at two other universities in China and a biotechnology company. The team of scientists were assigned to develop a test which could produce a result in 40 minutes and that can be performed in a doctor's office or in non-medical settings such as airports.

A 13-page booklet detailing the test's development and benefits revealed that the test has been tried successfully in more than 200 samples collected from hospitals and checkpoints but it is not clear how widely the test is being used in China, where the COVID-19 killed 3,405 people since the outbreak in December 2019.

University of Florida
University of Florida Wikimedia Commons

Coronavirus tests

Even though scientists claimed that testing is important to limit the spread of the virus, it seems the US has lagged well behind China, South Korea, and Italy in the number of people tested. But on Thursday during White House briefing, Dr Deborah Birx said, "You can see the dramatic increases in the number of new cases based on our ability to test additional people and this will continue over the next two to three days."

However, it is currently not possible to reveal whether Tan's test would have made any difference but as per the reports, the US ramp-up was caused by bureaucratic barriers as well as the shortage of chemical agents needed for testing.

Research in China

Tan is one of those three researchers who relocated to China while under investigation for allegedly hiding Chinese funding or affiliations with universities there. While in 2019, altered by NIH, Florida started investigating Tan's outside activities. Even though he did not mention anything about his departure from Florida, Tan said that his department chairman at Florida was "supportive" of his research in China as recently as 2015.

It should be noted that as per a ProPublica analysis, more than 20 previously unreported examples of Thousand Talents professors were found who appear not to have fully revealed their secret research in China to the US universities or NIH.

As per Michael Lauer, deputy director for extramural research in NIH said the agency contacted 84 institutions regarding 180 Chinese scientists whom it suspects of hiding outside activities or funding. He also said, "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?"

China's Thousand Talents was aimed at reversing the country's brain drain to the West by offering luxurious salaries and lab facilities to the top Chinese scientists back home if they return.

Though none of the Chinese researchers faced any conviction for stealing or inappropriately sharing intellectual property, FBI's assistant director of counter-intelligence, John Brown told the US Senate in November 2019 that Thousand Talents program participants are often motivated to "transfer to China the research they conduct in the US, as well as other proprietary information to which they can gain access, and remain a significant threat to the United States."

Scientist Pixabay

Findings on Chinese researchers

As per a report, at least 14 researchers are found who apparently failed to disclose foreign affiliations to their universities, which included the University of Wisconsin, Stony Brook University and Louisiana State University but the report couldn't determine whether these Chinese researchers were also on NIH's confidential list or not.

But now even though researchers at the US rejected overtures from China, they have been hounded. An epidemiological researcher, Xifeng Wu, who worked at MD Anderson for nearly three decades turned down invitations to join Thousand Talents but accepted honorary positions at research institutions in China, where she attended medical school. But NIH identified her as a concern, while MD Anderson found that the researcher did not always fully disclose her Chinese affiliations.

Richard Hsung, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Wisconsin revealed that he didn't mention his position at Tianjin University as the disclosure forms confused him.