Professor Accused of Hiding Ties to China While Doing NASA Research

A NASA jet on display at Johnson Space Center in Houston. (Courthouse News photo/Cameron Langford)

(CN) — A Chinese Texas A&M University professor appeared in Houston federal court Monday to face charges he concealed his ties to a Chinese university and business while working on research funded by NASA.

Texas A&M University hired Zhengdong Cheng, 53, in 2004 to teach in the Chemical Engineering Department at its College Station campus.

According to the FBI, Cheng got a side gig in China in 2012 when the Guangdong University of Technology, a school formed by the Chinese government’s Ministry of Education, hired him as a chair professor in 2011.

He also formed a company based in Foshan City, China, and affiliated with Guangdong University in 2014, the FBI says in his criminal complaint, which was unsealed Monday following his arrest on Sunday.

The Chinese university’s website “described Cheng as ‘Professor of the ‘Hundred Talents Program’ of our school,” FBI agent Benjamin Harper wrote in an affidavit supporting the charges. 

The Chinese government created its Hundred Talents Program to encourage Chinese citizens working in the United States to steal intellectual property from their U.S. employers by rewarding them with government jobs, according to federal law enforcement officials.

The FBI says Cheng’s Texas A&M University research team applied for a NASA grant in April 2013 and included a resume for Cheng that did not list any employment or affiliation with China, any Chinese-owned company or Chinese university.

Federal law restricts NASA from funding any grant involving collaboration with Chinese institutions, including universities, and businesses. It does not preclude Chinese citizens from working on NASA projects.

NASA awarded Texas A&M University a $746,000 grant in September 2013. After the grant award, Cheng omitted his work in China from financial disclosure statements he filed yearly with Texas A&M University from 2012 to 2019, according to prosecutors.

The FBI caught wind of Cheng’s alleged scam through academic journals. According to the affidavit, from 2012 to 2018 multiple articles written by Cheng listed him as a professor at Guangdong University.

Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp said the university worked closely with the FBI on the case.

“No one in higher education takes security as seriously as we do at The Texas A&M University System. In fact, we have received several awards from the Department of Defense’s Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency, including one just last month,” Sharp said in a statement.

Texas A&M did not address questions emailed Monday about the complaint, which include accusations against three unnamed Texas A&M researchers who reportedly helped Cheng deceive NASA, and whether Cheng is still employed by the university.

The charges come one month after the federal government forced the Chinese consulate in Houston to close its doors, claiming it was full of spies bent on stealing data from Texas medical universities.

Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center fired three Asian scientists in April 2019 amid concerns they were stealing intellectual property for China, the Houston Chronicle reported.

Cheng faces charges of wire fraud, making false statements and conspiracy.

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