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unethical practice?


Quantum Buckyball
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One of my colleagues is a 5th year domestic student, and he is in a research group comprised of 95% foreign, Chinese students. 
 
Here is the catch....
 
He said that when he first joined the research group, the group was mostly domestic American students, and maybe 1 or 2 foreign students out of total ~20 students. Then, two years later, all the sudden the PI (who is a foreigner himself) stopped taking any domestic students and let them graduated with a Masters instead of a PhD, and only accept international students from China since then. 
 
I thought he was joking at the time because there is no way this is legal mainly because most of their research funds in the US are funded by the US taxpayers' money and private companies in the US. 
 
After doing some digging and chatted with other senior-level grad students from that group. I found out the PI has another research group (academia) and a company in China. 9 out of 10 of the students graduated from the US group headed back to China and started research groups of their own. The research topics they're doing compete with the research topics that the US group is currently working on.
 
From the legal standpoint, is this even legal...? I'm not a law expert but I found it very sketchy and conflict of interest? I understand that we should always collaborate internationally, but where is the boundary?
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I can't really speak to what's legal, since I am not a lawyer but it doesn't sound like anything illegal is happening here. 

 

But is it ethical? It's less clear. I also think there is a lot of different things going on at the same time and here are my thoughts:

 

1. The PI is only accepting students from China. 

-- I do not think this is ethical if the PI is purposely using nationality/ethnicity to select his/her graduate students. I have heard of cases of a foreign PI only hiring students from their home country and then using this to take advantage of them. However, the PI might be doing this unconsciously. If so, they should reconsider their evaluation scheme to make sure they are fairly selecting graduate students. 

 

2. The PI uses US funds (public and private) to pay for the training of international students.

-- This is totally ethical and fine, as long as there are no weird stipulations from the source of the funding. A school that admits international students should also fund and treat international students the same as domestic students once they are admitted. 

 

3. The PI's students move back to China after their PhD

-- This is also fine. In fact, my J-1 status kind of requires me to go back to Canada after my PhD. Also, US Immigration has repeatedly made it clear that the purpose of F-1 and J-1 is to simply complete studies in the US without any promise or expectation of future work in the US afterwards (although there are programs like OPT that can help you get US work experience in your field). 

-- So I would say that the whole purpose of training international student is not really to keep them in your country but to send them back to their home countries with US training. This is a reciprocal process of course, US students can go to other countries and bring that training/experience back to enrich US culture.

 

4. The PI's former students form their own research groups which compete with the US group.

-- Also fine I think. The point of the PhD program is to train independent researchers (i.e. forming their own research group). Many PhDs will do research in the field they are trained in (initially anyways) so the nature of the PhD program is that you train people that might be future collaborators but also future competitors. Competitors are not inherently bad though. 

 

5. The PI has another research group in China.

-- This may or may not be okay depending on whether or not the PI has disclosed this other affiliation with their US employer. I know many professors who might hold joint appointments between two different institutions though. A lot of international schools also recruit and pay US professors to be something like 10% joint with them. As long as the PI has properly disclosed this potential conflict of commitment and/or conflict of interest with both schools, there is no ethical reason why a person cannot lead two separate academic research groups at two separate institutions.

 

6. The PI owns a company in China.

-- Same as #5 I think.

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I don't think that there is anything illegal here. Questionable, maybe. To respond in the same order that TakeruK has: 

 

1. The PI is only accepting students from China. 

-- It is not illegal to do this, but there is question here. There may be ethical issues that the university's HR might worry about. If people are being discriminated against because of their nationality, that could be an issue. On the other hand, foreign students are often discriminated against for precisely this reason and no one seems to care (there are many cases where schools hire American students instead of international students, for various reasons). Moreover, since you say that this is a recent occurrence, could it just be a coincidence? I would worry that the one American student is being kept around to write/edit the other students' papers, but if that is not the case and it's only been happening for two years, I don't think you can view this is a pattern.

 

2. The PI uses US funds (public and private) to pay for the training of international students.

-- Unless there are strings attached to the money, the PI can use it to fund whoever they deem fit. I don't see an issue here.

 

3. The PI's students move back to China after their PhD

-- Student visas are non-immigration visas and the only way you obtain them is by telling the US government that you'll leave after you graduate. The US is not welcoming of international students who wish to permanently stay in the country after they graduate, let me tell you. Now we can debate the logic of investing a lot of money training students who then don't stay to contribute to the US economy, but none of this is the students' fault. They are doing what they are required to do. 

 

4. The PI's former students form their own research groups which compete with the US group.

-- Sure, they were trained to do that kind of research. It makes sense that they would then engage in it in their own groups wherever they end up working. Most students anywhere do work similar to their advisors after they graduate, and end up "competing" with their advisors for funding, publications, recruiting students, etc to work on similar projects. How is this different from any other situation of someone graduating and becoming a professor?

 

5. The PI has another research group in China.

-- This is something that the PI would have had to get approved by his US institution. Some professors are affiliated with more than one institution and do these things, and it's not illegal. If it's "under the table," that may be a different matter, depending on his contract and whether he is allowed to do any other work on top of his appointment at the university.

 

6. The PI owns a company in China.

-- I don't think there is anything illegal about this, and I don't even think this requires any special approval from the US institution. It's of course something that the PI would have to disclose when submitting grants, and there may be implications for proper selection of reviewers and perhaps of research topics/funding, but if done properly I think it should be possible for professors to have a private company "on the side." I think it's actually fairly common in certain academic fields.

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He said that when he first joined the research group, the group was mostly domestic American students, and maybe 1 or 2 foreign students out of total ~20 students. Then, two years later, all the sudden the PI (who is a foreigner himself) stopped taking any domestic students and let them graduated with a Masters instead of a PhD, and only accept international students from China since then. 

 
I thought he was joking at the time because there is no way this is legal mainly because most of their research funds in the US are funded by the US taxpayers' money and private companies in the US. 

...Sounds perfectly legal. 

 

I know that this happened in another research group where the PI suddenly lost a chunk of funding and had to push out a number of their grad students with a Masters because they could no longer all be supported. It isn't nice, but it still happens.

 

What also tends to happen when a research group gets to a certain linguistic concentration is that domestic native English-speaking students are put off joining the group because they don't think they will fit in. Meanwhile the international applicants who speak that language aren't deterred in the slightest. Then it becomes more about the applicants self-selecting than the PI's bias. Having seen that International students are more often disfavoured by American Professors than favoured (both when applying to join the group and once they're inside), I can understand the psychology behind choosing a research group where you are the ethnic majority.

 

Regarding start-ups. My understanding is that this is fairly normal in Chemistry (and bio/medical disciplines). I can think of a number of big name Professors who founded companies to commercialise their research - or else are involved in lucrative consultancy gigs. Other academics supplement their income by patenting off their inventions. 

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A PI forcing domestic grad students out of the program with an MS and taking in exclusively Chinese students to complete their PhD? Sounds unethical to me. And if not illegal, I would hope it is against school policy. Just as it should be for a domestic PI to take this approach. 

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