US lawmakers challenge ‘secrecy’ on Huawei-funded research grant

Members of US House issue bipartisan demand for details of private foundation giving $1 million annually using controversial Chinese company’s donations

May 21, 2024
French headquarters of Huawei Technologies, Boulogne-Billancourt, France
Source: iStock/HJBC

US lawmakers from both major parties are asking a private foundation to explain its apparent role in funnelling millions of dollars from the Chinese telecommunications conglomerate Huawei to major universities without their knowledge.

The philanthropic organisation, the Optica Foundation, was created in 2022 and provides early career prizes and fellowships across higher education for optics-related science. Optica generally lists individual and corporate contributors in relation to specific grants. But Bloomberg described an exception to that transparency involving a $1 million (£800,000) a year prize – far larger than any other Optica offers – in which the money comes from Huawei, a company under formal US government restrictions because of its ties to the Chinese government.

That apparent secrecy seems “deeply unusual in the context of our heightened national awareness of research security concerns,” the top-ranking members of the science committee in the US House of Representatives, Frank Lucas, a Republican of Oklahoma, and Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat of California, say in a letter to Optica’s chief executive officer, Elizabeth Rogan.

The revelation comes as federal lawmakers, on a bipartisan basis but largely on the Republican side, have been waging a multi-year campaign to force US colleges and universities to fully disclose their financial ties abroad, primarily because of concerns about China. Universities, in response, have acknowledged risks with China but warned policymakers that the US-China academic relationship is overall beneficial.

Ms Rogan, a certified public accountant, denied any attempt at deceit in Optica’s ties to Huawei, saying her foundation acknowledged Huawei’s status as a donor “in our member magazine, annual report and website”. And Ms Rogan, in an exchange with Times Higher Education, said she expected that the Huawei-funded prize, known as the Foundation Challenge Grant programme, would continue.

“The Challenge programme is in its pilot phase, and Huawei is the initial donor,” she told THE. “As the programme hopefully grows, so will the donor base.”

Huawei, in a statement, said it was proud of its support for Optica. “Given that Huawei’s contribution to the Optica Foundation is openly declared on the foundation’s website," a company spokesperson said, "any suggestion of secrecy is absurd."

Ms Rogan did, however, suggest an intent to reconsider some aspects of its approach. The revelation about Huawei “has raised important questions for the Optica Foundation and the research community at large”, she said. “We’re constantly reviewing our policies and communication efforts to identify ways to improve our processes and increase transparency.”

US beneficiaries of Optica support include Harvard University, where Eric Mazur, a prominent professor of physics, serves as chair of the board of directors of the Optica Foundation.

Mr Lucas and Ms Lofgren, in their letter to Ms Rogan, pose a list of questions they want her foundation to answer about its ties to China and Huawei and the nature of the donor relationship.

The lawmakers note that optics research has military applicability, and say they expect she should know that – “as the leader of the premiere scientific society promoting optics research in the United States” – that could explain Huawei’s eagerness to invest heavily in its relationship with Optica.

The two lawmakers also reject Ms Rogan’s assertions that it is normal for donors to seek privacy. “This ignores the circumstances that make the Optica Foundation’s decision deeply unusual in the context of our heightened national awareness of research security concerns,” they say in their letter to Ms Rogan.

Ms Rogan told THE that Optica values global connections. “We foster relationships based on demonstrated integrity and results, both on an individual employee and corporate level,” she said. “Our professional community understands the need to give back to the next generation in order for students and early career professionals to succeed. Huawei stepped up in 2021.”

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