Show Me the Money

Show Me the Money

For Science, Mara Hvistendahl recounts the experiences of theoretical physicist Ulf Leonhardt, who was contracted to spend three months a year at the Centre for Optical and Electromagnetic Research (COER) at South China Normal University. His work was partly funded by the the Recruitment Program of Foreign Experts, or “Thousand Talents” plan, which offers a generous subsidy to foreign scholars for part-time work at Chinese institutions. But Leonhardt’s experience demonstrates how contractual agreements are often ignored as Chinese host institutions seek to benefit from their relationship with foreign experts:

Thousand Talents and similar programs had struggled to attract candidates of international caliber (Science, 31 July 2009, p. 534), and Leonhardt, who was applying at the peak of his career, seemed a shoo-in. By September 2012, he had snagged acceptances from both programs and had signed a 5-year contract with COER. The center offered his partner, Jana Silberg, a part-time job, too.

But Leonhardt and Silberg would come to suspect that a substantial portion of his grant money and the salary due to Silberg were being diverted to other uses. After hiring lawyers to investigate, they uncovered a web of misinformation, including incorrectly translated agreements and covert purchases of equipment at COER. “The fraud they committed was so brazen,” charges Leonhardt, who bailed out of his contract after spending just one summer in Guangzhou.

Sailing He flatly denies that COER diverted any funds, and others at COER say that Leonhardt agreed up front to an arrangement in which the bulk of his grant would be administered by others. Sailing He calls Leonhardt ungrateful for COER’s help in securing the lucrative arrangement: “He was getting $20,000 USD a month. He doesn’t need to care about the details.”

At a time when China is spending heavily to recruit talented overseas scientists, the dispute between COER and Leonhardt is a cautionary tale. Interviews with other foreign-born recipients of Thousand Talents awards reveal that host institutions in several instances have seized the reins, controlling everything from the application process to grant administration. Among Thousand Talents awardees interviewed by Science, ignorance of the program’s nuts and bolts—even at the most basic level, such as the amount of money they are due—is the norm. [Source]


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