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Former Los Alamos physicist denies federal charges he lied about China ties

A physicist who spent 2 decades at the Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico today pleaded not guilty to federal charges of lying about his involvement in a research funding program run by the Chinese government. Prosecutors allege that Turab Lookman, who worked at LANL from 1999 until recently, repeatedly denied involvement with China’s Thousand Talents Program, despite having agreed to join it “for personal compensation.”

“We look forward to presenting a vigorous defense,” Lookman’s attorney, Paul Linnenburger of Rothstein Donatelli LLP in Santa Fe, tells ScienceInsider. Lookman, who has a doctorate in theoretical physics and was awarded a prestigious LANL fellowship in 2017, presented his plea to a federal magistrate judge in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

A federal grand jury on 22 May indicted Lookman on three charges of making false statements about his contacts with the Thousand Talents Program, which since 2008 has used offers of salaries and other support to establish ties with scientists working outside of China. Prosecutors allege that Lookman lied about his interactions with the program on a computerized employment form in 2017, as well as during conversations last year with a LANL counterintelligence officer and an investigator from a federal agency that conducts background checks. Specifically, prosecutors allege that “a foreign national had … asked [Lookman] to apply for” the Thousand Talents Program sometime before November 2017, and that he had “applied for, and been accepted to participate in” the program before June 2018. The charges carry a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison.

The Thousand Talents Program has drawn extensive attention from U.S. officials in recent years, with some alleging that it has become a vehicle for the Chinese government to take unfair advantage of U.S.-funded research. Several thousand scientists, many of them ethnic Chinese or Chinese Americans living in the United States, have been supported by the program over the past decade. Prosecutors in the Lookman case characterized Thousand Talents in a 24 May press release as “a program established by the Chinese government to recruit people with access to and knowledge of foreign technology and intellectual property.”

As a result of such concerns, the Department of Energy has moved to bar researchers it funds from participating in the program and similar talent recruitment efforts run by other nations. And some biomedical researchers who participate in Thousand Talents and have funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have been investigated by their universities after NIH asked whether they may have violated federal rules requiring disclosure of foreign ties. At least two institutions, MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, and Emory University in Atlanta, have ousted researchers involved in Thousand Talents after NIH raised concerns. In China, the controversy has reportedly prompted officials to advise participants to remove mention of their involvement from websites and resumes.

According to a 2017 LANL press release, Lookman worked in the laboratory’s theoretical division and was “an expert in the computational physics of materials, complex fluids, and nonlinear dynamics. His recent work on materials design and informatics applies data science to the discovery of materials with new, beneficial properties. … He is co-author of two books and more than 250 publications.”

At today’s hearing, Lookman, who had been in federal custody since 23 May, was released to home detention with a GPS monitoring bracelet after posting a $50,000 bond.