China employs its Thousand Talents Program (“TTP”) to recruit overseas academic and scientific talent to work in China by promising research funding from the Chinese government and, occasionally, compensation. TTP has drawn increased scrutiny from the U.S. government, specifically the FBI and the Department of Justice, over purported concerns of intellectual property theft or espionage. However, a closer review of the actual charges brought to date by these government agencies reveals the crux of the matter has related to disclosures. Regardless of the motivation, these agencies are actively investigating professors, academics, researchers, and scientists associated with the controversial program.
China developed academic recruitment programs in the 1990s, albeit to little success. In 2006, Chinese efforts accelerated upon the announcement of the National Medium and Long-Term Program for Science and Technology Development, a program designed to make China the world’s science and technology leader by 2050. As part of this effort, China developed the Thousand Talents Program in 2008. One report estimated that China had recruited more than 7,000 professionals through TTP.
What is the Risk?
While the U.S. Governments’ concerns with the TTP program purport to relate to risks of intellectual property or espionage, the resulting charges often have focused on TTP participants’ failure to disclose their work and collaborations with and within China. For example, the Chair of Harvard University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department was charged with lying to the federal government regarding his involvement in TTP and connections with the Wuhan University of Technology. No charges brought against him alleged intellectual property theft or espionage. Last year, a professor at The Ohio State University was charged for “grant fraud for not disclosing that he was engaged in a sophisticated scheme to use approximately $4.1 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop China’s expertise in the areas of rheumatology and immunology.” On January 13, 2021, a NASA scientist pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI and other agencies concerning his ties to the TTP.
Similarly, an MIT Professor was recently arrested for not disclosing his ties to the Chinese government while receiving grants from the U.S. government for his work and research at MIT. Allegedly, he also received $29 million in foreign funding and advised the Chinese government on its scientific and technological developments. However, that arrest prompted an academic protest. More than 100 of the professor’s colleagues signed a letter in support of him, asserting that MIT received the money – not the professor. Moreover, the letter alleged the professor’s foreign collaborations were not secret but rather “a matter of extensive disclosure and public record and anything but hidden from the eyes of the public let alone the sophisticated grant reviewers at the DOE."
Government Fears Excessive
While U.S. government agencies may be concerned about potential risks stemming from the Chinese government’s sponsored funding, international collaboration has long been an accepted practice. In fact, the U.S. government conceded that there is nothing inherently illegal about participation in TTP when the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts stated,
“All the Thousand Talents program does is induce people who are doing research in the United States to come to China, and do the same research, by offering them money. And that's not illegal, per se.”
Likewise, investigations conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) into grant recipients with foreign ties have not unearthed serious instances of intellectual property theft or espionage. Rather, as Dr. Michael Lauer, Deputy Director for Extramural Research at NIH, concluded in 2019, “Thousand Talents is not a threat.” He added, “[i]t’s not the specific conduct [the NIH is] focusing on, it’s the failure to disclose it.”
This heightened scrutiny has frustrated individuals who did not engage in theft or espionage, but instead may have failed to disclose their ties and affiliations sufficiently. This frustration is particularly acute in light of the unclear or confusing guidance that accompanied these initial requests for disclosure. Even when universities support the individuals in question, investigations such as these are time-intensive and difficult.
Simply stated, the intensity of government investigations into foreign talent programs, whether the TTP, the National High-end Recruitment Program, or some other program, highlights the importance of accurate and complete disclosure on applications for government grants. Often it may be appropriate to seek the assistance of experienced counsel such as the White Collar, Fraud and Government Investigations group at Miles & Stockbridge P.C.
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