A scientist who until recently worked for The Jackson Laboratory in Farmington, Connecticut, is being investigated by the FBI for allegedly failing to disclose financial affiliations with Chinese research institutions in applications for grant funding from the U.S. government.
According to an FBI affidavit filed in federal court in Bangor, Yijun Ruan was listed as the primary investigator on 17 Jackson Lab research projects that received more than $15 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health from 2014 through 2020. But Ruan failed to disclose on those applications that he also held jobs with Huazhong Agricultural University and Shenzhen People’s Hospital in China, which could be a violation of federal wire fraud laws, according to the FBI.
In the affidavit, the FBI asks for court approval to electronically search Ruan’s Gmail account for more information about the scientist’s contractual ties to Chinese research organizations. The Bar Harbor-based Jackson Lab already has provided the FBI access to emails sent and received by Ruan from other emails accounts, including his Jackson Lab email account, federal officials said.
The affidavit was filed in federal court in Bangor on Dec. 30 but was unsealed and made public on Tuesday. The document does not say if the FBI thinks any of the NIH funding actually was illegally diverted to other research organizations.
Ruan, an American citizen, attended Huazhong Agricultural University as an undergraduate and graduate student, and earned his Ph.D. in plant molecular biology at University of Maryland in 1994, according to a copy of his resume. He first started working for Jackson Lab in 2012, after holding posts at the National University of Singapore and the Genome Institute of Singapore.
Ruan no longer works for Jackson Lab, a lab spokesperson said Tuesday.
No charges have been filed in the case, which remains under investigation and is similar to other cases in which scientists working for U.S. universities and research entities have been accused of failing to disclose connections to China, which federal authorities say enables federal funds to be illegally diverted to research projects in China.
Last month, a former University of Florida associate professor was indicted on six counts of wire fraud and four counts of making false statements to a U.S. agency, according to a report by USA Today. The former professor, who is a Chinese citizen, has not returned to the U.S. since traveling to China in August 2019, according to federal officials in Florida.
Federal prosecutors also have charged Harvard professor Charles Lieber and MIT professor Gang Chen for allegedly failing to disclose financial and research ties to China — a move that has been criticized by scientists and academic officials.
On applications for research funding from the federal government, institutions are required to provide complete information about affiliations with foreign governments or foreign research institutions that are held by their researchers who would use the funding. The requirement is meant to preserve such funding for American-based research projects and for the benefit of the American public, and to prevent such funds from being diverted to support the research goals of foreign governments, federal officials have said.
Ruan was still listed by Jackson Lab last summer as a research professor but no longer works for the lab, according to a lab official. Stephanie Wasco, the lab’s chief communications officer, said Tuesday that the lab, also known as JAX, is cooperating fully with the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice in the investigation.
Wasco said international cooperation and collaboration are key to expediting discoveries in global biomedical research and that it supports its employees in fostering cross-border working relationships.
“JAX has policies and procedures in place to guide the ethical conduct of our scientific staff and how we share our research with other institutions, and works to ensure compliance with regulations and standards governing disclosure of external financial interests and sources of support for their research,” Wasco said. “Our paramount priority is to advance our research mission for the betterment of humankind.”
Jackson Lab has significantly expanded its connections to China and elsewhere in Asia in recent years. In addition to having hired other researchers from China, in 2011 it hired Edison Liu, an American citizen and Hong Kong native, as its president and CEO. Liu, who had been executive director of the Genome Institute of Singapore for a decade when he was hired, said at the time that his familiarity with the biomedical research community in Asia would be an asset to the lab.
Jackson Lab has pursued other initiatives directly in China, including an effort that eventually did not come to fruition to establish a partnership with Wenzhou Medical University. Last fall it announced a joint venture in Beijing with Beijing Anitech Biotechnology to produce and sell research mice and to contract research services for Chinese biomedical and drug development research.
Spokespeople with the FBI’s regional office in Boston and with the U.S attorney’s office in Portland declined Tuesday to comment on the Ruan investigation.