A chemical engineering professor at the University of Kansas was convicted on Thursday on charges that he concealed work he was doing in China while conducting research funded by the US government.
A federal jury in Kansas City found Feng “Franklin” Tao guilty of four of the eight counts against him, including wire fraud charges in the latest trial to result from a now-ended crackdown on Chinese influence within US research.
He was one of about two dozen academics charged in the US Department of Justice “China Initiative,” which was launched during former president Donald Trump’s administration to counter suspected Chinese economic espionage and research theft.
The Justice Department ended the initiative in February following several failed prosecutions and criticism that it chilled academic research and fuelled bias against Asians. But it said it would continue pursuing cases over threats posed by China.
Tao denied wrongdoing. His lawyer, Peter Zeidenberg, said he would challenge the verdict, noting that judge Julie Robinson said she saw “significant issues” with the government’s evidence.
“While we are deeply disappointed with the jury’s verdict, we believe it was so clearly against the weight of the evidence we are convinced that it will not stand,” Zeidenberg said.
Tao began working in 2014 at the University of Kansas Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis on projects involving renewable energy, including shale gas.
Prosecutors alleged that in 2018, Tao signed a five-year contract with Fuzhou University in China that required him to be a full-time employee after applying to participate in one of China’s “talent plans”.
The Justice Department says China uses those programmes to entice foreign researchers to share their knowledge with it.
Yet prosecutors said Tao falsely filed reports with the school claiming no conflicts of interest – allowing him to defraud the university, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.
- Reuters, with additional editing by George Russell