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Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Federal investigations into contacts between American academics, scientists and others with connections – or at least alleged connections – to a Chinese government recruiting program exploded into public view in New Mexico recently.
Turab Lookman of Santa Fe, a 20-year, award-winning physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, was arrested by the FBI on May 23 on federal grand jury indictments charging him with lying about contacts with Thousand Talents, a long-standing effort to encourage successful Chinese nationals abroad to return home and which also reaches out to other experts for other kinds of interactions.
But before Lookman’s arrest, universities in New Mexico had been quietly briefed about federal concerns over Chinese contacts, which have resulted in a series of enforcement actions around the U.S. in recent weeks.
Federal authorities fear that Thousand Talents can be a conduit for transferring American technology, know-how or trade and scientific secrets to China. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque said when announcing Lookman’s indictment that the program tries “to recruit people with access to and knowledge of foreign technology and intellectual property.”
Luis Cifuentes, New Mexico State University’s vice president for research and dean of NMSU’s graduate school, provided a statement in response to Journal questions last week.
“We are well-aware of the issue, and we are actively addressing the situation,” Cifuentes said. “We have met with the FBI on various occasions and have brought in an external consultant to help develop a plan to ensure the university responds appropriately to these potential threats.”
Van Romero, New Mexico Tech’s vice president of research, said in an interview that Tech officials were invited to the University of New Mexico about six weeks ago for a briefing by the FBI and officials from the National Institutes for Health.
In August, NIH Director Francis Collins sent letters to thousands of American research institutions, including universities, warning that foreign entities were mounting “systematic programs to influence NIH researchers and peer reviewers,” according to several news accounts. Collins encouraged contacting FBI field offices for briefings.
Romero said Tech got no such letter and doesn’t do much work with NIH. But at the UNM briefing, officials from the FBI and NIH went over legal issues, including those connected with Thousand Talents, he said.
He said he’s not aware of any problem research by the Tech faculty or any faculty participation in Thousand Talents. But the briefing did spur “a really close look” at the Chinese program.
Romero said it’s his understanding that what Thousand Talents does “is perfectly legal; there’s nothing illegal about it.”
“What happens is that people who get involved in it, they’re the ones who start committing crimes, as opposed to the Chinese government,” he said.
“My understanding is that one of the requirements in the Thousand Talents program is that when you are induced to go do research in China, when you do that, part of the agreement is that China owns all the intellectual property,” Romero said.
“I have a problem with that. That is not what I consider research in a university environment where it’s free and open, and we exchange ideas and exchange work.” That issue, Romero added, “really is a black cloud over that program.”
He said there was a lot of “frank and open discussion” at the UNM briefing. “Of course, the academic comment was, if the United States government plowed more money into research, then we wouldn’t have to go to other countries to do it. Of course, there’s never enough money for research, right?”
Richard Wood, UNM’s interim provost, said he was lead sponsor for the recent meeting with federal officials.
He said he led a discussion about concerns over the Chinese program and how “we need to take this seriously – this is real, there’s real evidence for it – and at the same time we need to respond to it in ways that are appropriate for a public university, where one of our biggest values is the free exchange of ideas and the openness of inquiry.”
“It’s an important issue,” he said. “All of our institutions and universities need to be paying attention to it. And it’s delicate terrain because we don’t want to shut down the flow of ideas that is the basis of scientific progress. How do we do both of those things right? That’s the challenge.”
“It’s behavior that needs to be looked at, it’s not categories of people,” Wood added. “We’re not going to worry about the Chinese because they’re Chinese or the Canadians because they’re Canadians. The question is what behaviors are allowed and what behaviors are not allowed.”
Recently terminated LANL scientist Lookman has pleaded not guilty to his charges. Federal prosecutors say he falsely denied three times that any foreign nationals had offered him a job or that he had applied for one, even though he did apply for and was accepted into Thousand Talents “for personal compensation.”
Additional cases around the country involving similar issues include:
• Earlier this year, a former research oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was sentenced to time already served in a Florida lockup for working for two China programs, including Thousand Talents. He pleaded guilty to accepting a salary from another source while working for the U.S. agency.
• A Chinese American General Electric engineer participating in Thousand Talents was arrested by the FBI in August in New York state and was indicted in April in an alleged theft-of-trade-secrets scheme. He denies wrongdoing.
• A University of Texas hospital in Houston confirmed in April it had let go three scientists in connection with an investigation of Chinese efforts to obtain American research. News reports said NIH had contacted 55 U.S. medical institutions with names of researchers believed to have shared federally funded research with China or other foreign governments. NBC News said it had documents showing Thousand Talents “participates in a quid pro quo scheme that compensates doctors for intellectual property.”
• In May, a husband-and-wife team of Chinese American neuroscientists at Emory University in Atlanta, where they had worked for 23 years, was fired for failing to disclose research funding from China and work for Chinese universities while receiving U.S. federal grants. The couple maintains their ties to China had in fact been disclosed. One of them has been part of Thousand Talents for years.