Trans-Pacific View | Opinion | East Asia

Chinese Research Funding, Economic Espionage, and Disclosure

Disclosure can help mitigate risks.

Chinese Research Funding, Economic Espionage, and Disclosure
Credit: CC0 image via Pixabay

In the highest profile case of its type in recent memory, a professor at the U.S.-based Harvard University was charged last month with lying to American officials about links to China’s Thousand Talents Program — a state-backed initiative to offer financing to foreign researchers in exchange for knowhow and assistance in critical technologies and issues.

Charles Lieber, a prominent nanoscientist and the chair of Harvard’s chemistry and chemical biology department, was arrested on January 28. The U.S. Department of Justice released a criminal complaint detailing the wrongdoing that Lieber is accused of.

A few bits about Lieber’s case stand out immediately. First, the complaint against him alleges that he was paid eye-popping amounts for his collaboration with China-based researchers. In addition to $600,000 in annual salary, he was earning some $150,000 in “living expense” — that’s leaving aside the $1.5 million he allegedly received to help set up a laboratory in China.

Nominally and in terms of status, there’s little more that someone of Lieber’s pedigree — chair of a department at Harvard University — could seek. The pay for someone in his position certainly isn’t paltry and, as the complaint makes clear, Lieber was doing just fine seeking funding from American sources. He had received millions in U.S. federal funding, including “more than $15,000,000” in research funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and U.S. Department of Defense.

What his case suggests, though, is that the allure of Chinese government-sanctioned schemes like the Thousand Talents Program is powerful. Lieber’s case may well become one of the more prominent of its type, but the bigger concern should be what it portends for less successful researchers and scholars — many of whom may also be at the cutting edge of innovative research in a variety of critical fields.

From what has been publicly gleaned so far, the core matter for which Lieber ran afoul of the law is his failure to disclose his relationship with China-based institutions, including the Wuhan University of Technology.

Lieber isn’t the first and won’t be the last to be caught up in this sort of trouble. For instance, Turab Lookman, a former researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy facility that handles, among other things, U.S. nuclear weapons secrets, was charged in a similar case — also for links to the Thousand Talents Program. An Australia researcher was charged on similar grounds last year by U.S. prosecutors, as well.

Cases like Lieber and Lookman’s — neither of whom are of Chinese origin — may have the effect of allowing American prosecutors to push back on claims that racial profiling was informing much of the pushback on economic espionage. Other cases, like the sacking of three Thousand Talents-linked oncology researchers from a Texas-based cancer research institute last year, have given off the appearance of specialized scrutiny for Chinese-origin researchers.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation had been clear as early as 2015 that it views the Thousand Talents Program as a part of Beijing’s broader economic espionage agenda, describing it as an initiative that will help China “benefit from years of scientific research conducted in the United States.” It’s unsurprising then that amid a broader counterintelligence push by U.S. authorities in recent years, several prosecutors have come down hard on several Thousand Talents Program-linked individuals.

These concerns won’t evaporate overnight, especially as American concerns about economic competitiveness vis-a-vis China are likely to persist, even if there is a change in administration after the 2020 elections. Lieber and Lookman’s cases both suggest that a lack of disclosure is a problem. (In Lookman’s case, the possible transfer of classified secrets is another.)

Handling the disclosure problem will require institutions — including universities — to set clearer regulations on how their researchers and faculty make public their funding sources. Doing so can preserve core values for these institutions, like academic integrity and freedom, and avoid conflicts of interest.

Research partnerships and collaborations between American and Chinese institutions are, in themselves, not a danger to be averted, but organizations and individuals must practice due diligence and proper disclosure.