Aug 24, 2020 - World

DOJ charges NASA researcher for hiding relationship with China

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Painters refurbish the NASA logo on the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo: Gregg Newton/AFP via Getty Images

The Justice Department announced charges Monday against a Texas A&M University professor accused of conducting research for NASA while hiding his affiliations with a Chinese University and at least one Chinese company.

What happened: A complaint unsealed Monday alleges that Zhengdong Cheng, 53, participated in China's Thousand Talents Plan, which seeks to recruit "high-level scientific talent in furtherance of China’s scientific development, economic prosperity and national security."

  • He received a grant from NASA based on alleged false claims and personally benefited from his affiliation with Texas A&M and NASA, according to the DOJ's complaint. He had increased access to NASA's resources, like the International Space Station.
  • "This access allegedly allowed Cheng to further his standing in China at Guangdong University of Technology and other universities," per a DOJ statement.
  • Cheng is charged with a count of wire fraud, making a false statement to authorities and conspiracy to defraud the U.S.

The backdrop: Federal law prevents NASA from funding projects that work with the Chinese government or university system.

Our thought bubble via Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian: This is the latest high-profile case in the DOJ's efforts to uncover undisclosed ties between U.S.-based researchers and Chinese institutions.

  • U.S. officials fear that China's Thousand Talents programs may incentivize researchers to transfer research that the Chinese government aims to acquire.
  • Authorities also arrested people on charges of defrauding NASA in February and May.

What they're saying: “China is building an economy and academic institutions with bricks stolen from others all around the world,” said U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas Ryan Patrick.

  • "While 1.4 million foreign researchers and academics are here in the U.S. for the right reasons, the Chinese Talents Program exploits our open and free universities."
  • "These conflicts must be disclosed, and we will hold those accountable when such conflict violates the law.”

Go deeper: China's commercial space industry charges ahead

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