Chinese academician snagged in corruption dragnet

China’s antigraft campaign has ensnared a leading animal cloning researcher, according to Chinese news reports. The well-respected financial news magazine Caijing says that Li Ning, an animal breeding specialist at China Agricultural University (CAU), is under investigation for allegedly transferring research funds to companies in which he holds majority shares; he has not been seen in public since early July, the report says.

When Chinese President Xi Jinping launched an anticorruption campaign at the end of 2012, he vowed to catch both “tigers and flies,” meaning officials at all strata of the nation’s leadership. The biggest catch so far is China’s former internal security czar Zhou Yongkang. Li, who was elected to the Chinese Academy of Engineering in 2007 at age 45, is the first academician targeted in the campaign.

Li is a principal investigator on 18 major research projects in China, including the country’s well-funded transgenic project, according to CAU’s website. He is the director of CAU’s national key lab for agricultural biotechnology and leads teams in big animal cloning, stem cell research, and genetic engineering. Li’s bio also boasts of being a partner in the PigBioDiv2 project, a European Union–China collaboration under the European Union’s Fifth Framework Programme that aimed to assess diversity of pig breeds. According to Leif Andersson, an animal geneticist at Uppsala University in Sweden, Li provided tissue samples of Chinese domestic pigs to the project, which ended several years ago.

Using transgenic technology to breed new varieties of crops and livestock is among more than a dozen major projects in China’s 2006 to 2020 science and technology plan. The transgenic project was launched in 2008, with a planned investment of 20 billion yuan ($2.9 billion at 2008 exchange rates, or $3.25 billion at today’s exchange rate). Critics say the transgenic project has concentrated too much funding in too few hands with little accountability and few significant results.

According to the Caijing report, Li has access to tens of millions of dollars of research funds. He has also registered several biotech companies over the years, in which he holds controlling shares and serves as company director or manager. He allegedly transferred research funds into some of the companies, the report says. Li could not be reached for comment, and CAU has not commented on the investigation.

China’s anticorruption campaign had been cleaning house in academia long before Li’s detention. So far, leaders at 18 universities have been caught up in the sweep, according to various news reports. Last year, Chen Yingxu, a prominent water researcher, was charged with embezzlement. Earlier this year, Shen Weichen, the newly appointed party chief of the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST)—counterpart to AAAS (publisher of ScienceInsider) in China—was detained by the party’s disciplinary body, though his case was not related to his work at CAST. Anticorruption inspection teams have also been sent to major research universities such as Fudan University in Shanghai and the Ministry of Science and Technology. And two cases of alleged bribery by university officials were made public yesterday as well.

No official announcement has been made about Li’s case. It could become a test case for the revised bylaws of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, which list corruption as one of the grounds for stripping away the honorary title of academician.