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US energy department cracks down on foreign recruitment programmes

11 Jun 2019
Department of Energy HQ
Clamping down: the US Department of Energy has announced it will ban its scientists from participating in recruitment programmes that are sponsored by foreign governments. (Courtesy: US Government Accountability Office)

The US Department of Energy (DOE) says it will ban its scientists from taking part in recruitment programmes sponsored by foreign governments. The action, which extends an order announced in January, is designed to stop scientists funded by the DOE from participating in programmes, such as China’s 1000 Talents initiative. The ban extends to individuals working for the DOE’s contractors, which means that more than 100,000 individuals are affected.

While the ban applies to all overseas governments, analysts have little doubt that it mainly targets China, with the US government having recently expressed concern that China is using the 1000 Talents programme to obtain information about secret technology and intellectual property from US institutions. Created in 2008, the programme aims to attract Chinese scientists who have studied or worked abroad back to China by offering them salaries and laboratory support. It also targets non-Chinese scientists who have the right skills to support China’s technological innovation.

Under suspicion

Before the latest crackdown, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, five Chinese life scientists faced being sacked from their institutions, while in April a grand jury in New York charged GE Power engineer Zhang Xiaoqing, an US citizen, with passing trade secrets to China. Then in late May, theoretical physicist Turab Lookman – an Indian-born, British-educated, former Canadian resident who is a naturalized US citizen – was charged by the Department of Justice with “making false official statements” about his contact with the 1000 Talents programme.

A former employee of the DOE’s Los Alamos National Laboratory for more than 18 years, Lookman pleaded not guilty. After paying a $50,000 bond and surrendering his passports, he is now being detained in his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The charge asserts that Lookman agreed to participate in the programme “for personal compensation”, but that he denied doing so three times – in a standard security clearance form in 2017 as well as in interviews with a counterintelligence officer and another government investigator last year.

They are trying to pick bones out of an egg

Xiaoxing Xi

Lookman’s lawyer, Paul Linnenburger, says that while Lookman had top-security clearance, most of his research has been made public. Linnenburger adds that the prosecutor, George Kraehe, failed to prove that Lookman had access to or downloaded any high-level security information before Los Alamos terminated his employment. Los Alamos spokesperson Kevin Roark told Physics World in a statement that the lab “has worked co-operatively with federal law enforcement throughout this investigation and will continue to assist as appropriate during the prosecution phase”.

Given that Lookman is not Chinese, the issue has reverberated through the Chinese-American scientific community. Several suspect an ethnic component in the crackdown that follows similar cases. In May 2015 Temple University physics professor Xiaoxing Xi was charged by the FBI with passing details of a restricted device to Chinese colleagues – only later did they concede that they had misidentified the device.

“When top law enforcement officials say that Chinese students and scientists are not welcome because they steal US secrets, I know from my own personal experience that it would mean the FBI is reading [their] emails and listening to [their] phone calls,” he told Physics World. “They are trying to pick bones out of an egg”.

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