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Lawmakers Question Optics Society for Using Anonymous Donations from Huawei

MAY 22, 2024
Optica has defended the arrangement, stating it is not unusual for donors to want anonymity.
Mitch Ambrose headshot
Director of Science Policy News American Institute of Physics
huawei-logo-at-expo.jpg

Huawei logo

(Kārlis Dambrāns, CC BY 2.0 DEED)

The House Science Committee is questioning Optica, a professional society focused on optical science, for agreeing to let the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei anonymously finance a prize competition that supports early-career researchers. Committee leaders sent a letter to Optica CEO Liz Rogan last week probing the society’s decision to not disclose the company’s involvement in the competition to the public or to applicants, citing a May 2 article published by Bloomberg that revealed the arrangement. (Optica is an AIP Member Society and Rogan is on AIP’s Board of Directors.)

The annual competition was launched in 2022 by the society’s charitable arm, the Optica Foundation, and provides $100,000 in seed funding to ten early-career professionals who are using optical sciences to address global challenges related to the environment, health, and telecommunications. Science Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Ranking Member Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) argue in the letter that Optica’s conduct is troubling given that the U.S. government has banned the sale of Huawei products on national security grounds and has restricted exports to the company. They also argue that the non-disclosure of Huawei’s involvement compromised the ability of U.S. awardees to comply with a recent law mandating that federal grantees must disclose foreign sources of support for their research.

Rogan defended the arrangement in a statement excerpted by Bloomberg, saying that it is not unusual for donors to want to remain anonymous, and a Huawei spokesperson told Bloomberg the company wanted its involvement to be private to avoid the competition being perceived as promotional. Rogan also noted the arrangement was reviewed by outside legal counsel and that Huawei is publicly identified as a donor in the foundation’s annual report. An export controls expert contacted by Bloomberg noted the government’s current restrictions on Huawei likely do not apply to the competition because Huawei did not receive any special access to the research results in exchange for the donation.

Asked by FYI for clarification on her statement to Bloomberg, Rogan noted that she also told the publication that text in the arrangement with Huawei concerning confidentiality and the option to remain anonymous is “standard boiler plate language used in our contracts.” Asked for comment on the committee letter, Rogan stated, “We are collecting all the requested information and supporting materials and will respond to the congressional inquiry in a timely fashion.”

This news brief originally appeared in FYI’s newsletter for the week of May 20.

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