Just when U.S. universities are pushing to form alliances with their counterparts in China, accusations of scientific fraud are zinging across the Middle Kingdom. Beijing's determination to make China a scientific superpower seems to have created a Wild West climate where top researchers, under intense pressure to produce, are tempted to fake results or copy the works of others. Amidst charges and countercharges -- some of them spurious -- scientists worry that a witch hunt is starting up that could besmirch the credible research along with the suspect.
The outcry reached a crescendo on May 12, when Shanghai Jiaotong University announced the firing of star professor Chen Jin for allegedly faking research on computer chips. Chen is just one in a crowd of academics accused of everything from falsifying or plagiarizing results to embellishing résumés. While some have lost their jobs, "there are many, many known cases where the academics are still in senior positions," says Yuen Ying Chan, a University of Hong Kong professor and dean of the journalism program at Shantou University in Guangdong province.
One of the leading Chinese whistle-blowers is biochemist Shi-min Fang. He runs a highly influential Chinese-language Web site (www.xys.org) that details charges of fraud and abuse among China's scientists. Since his site launched in 2000, he claims to have exposed 500 cases of illegal or unethical behavior. "Misconduct is so widespread among Chinese academics that they have almost become used to it," Fang said in an e-mail exchange. "They don't think it's a big deal at all."
The turmoil comes at a particularly embarrassing time for President Hu Jintao. He and other leaders have been flogging their vision of China as an economy that relies on high-end innovation more than low-cost manufacturing. To realize this brains-based future, Communist Party leaders urge scientists to seize the leading edge of nanotechnology, stem cell research, and other emerging fields.
Such ambitious goals may be inspiring the unethical behavior. "Everybody is under pressure," says Xin-Yuan Fu, a Chinese professor at Indiana University School of Medicine. He helped organize an open letter from 120 U.S.-based Chinese academics calling on their government to reform the way it investigates misconduct accusations. "Almost every university wants to be world-class," he says. "Overnight, you should be a top scientist."
The rise of an entrepreneurial class further complicates the situation. As professors team up with business partners to commercialize their lab results, the nexus between science and the rough-and-tumble world of Chinese capitalism has not been pretty. One of the country's seamiest cases involves Dr. Qiu Xiaoqing, a professor at Sichuan University in Chengdu, and his onetime business partner, an investment company called Sichuan NTC Holdings.
Qiu, 51, teamed up with NTC in 2002 to develop his discovery regarding the ability of E. coli bacteria to kill harmful microbes in the body. The two sides had a falling out over what Qiu calls a disagreement about the percentage of shares he should get in the company. After that, some members of Qiu's research group accused him of faking his lab results. The charge, says Qiu, is "ridiculous...it's a huge joke." Sichuan University announced in April that it had cleared Qiu of wrongdoing. But NTC, unpersuaded, has asked the university to make the details of its investigation public.
Such messy academic disputes could give pause to U.S. universities seeking to increase their collaborations with the Chinese. Dr. George Wu, a professor at the University of Connecticut who collaborated with Dr. Qiu, has firsthand knowledge of the dangers. Early this year, Wu was anonymously accused of contributing to Qiu's alleged fraud. "I have never heard of anything this nasty," he says. While Wu was cleared by UConn, he has been replaced as head of his division, a move that the university says was in the works before the fraud allegations. Wu isn't so sure: "There's a stigma attached to somebody who is investigated."
The level of acrimony isn't likely to die down soon. Indiana University's Xin-Yuan Fu, a cancer expert, wants Beijing to create clear guidelines on how to handle accusations of wrongdoing, but whistle-blower Fang doubts that anyone would trust a government investigation.
By Bruce Einhorn, with Catherine Arnst in New York