A former physics professor at West Virginia University (WVU) faces up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines after pleading guilty earlier this month to defrauding the university so that he could take leave to satisfy his competing obligations to a Chinese research institution.

James Patrick Lewis was a tenured professor at WVU from 2006 to August 2019 and specialised in coal conversion technologies. Lewis admitted on 10 March to having secretly signed an employment contract with the Chinese government in July 2017 through the ‘Thousand Talents’ plan, and lying to his US university about the arrangement. The programme is designed to attract, recruit and cultivate high-level scientific talent to further China’s scientific development, economic prosperity and national security.

Under his contract with the Chinese government, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) agreed to employ Lewis as a professor for at least three years, and in exchange Lewis maintained an active research programme that produced publications in high quality, peer-reviewed journals, and provided training for students at the CAS. Lewis’s benefits as a member of the programme included a living subsidy of Yuan1 million (£115,700) and a research subsidy of Yuan4 million, on top of a Yuan600,000 salary.

Lewis’s contract stipulated that he would work full time in China for three consecutive years and spend at least nine months per year in the country to receive these benefits. It appears that he lied to WVU in March 2018 when he asked to be released from teaching duties during the autumn 2018 term. Lewis requested leave to care for a child that he and his wife were expecting in June 2018, but the Department of Justice (DOJ) said that the plan was for him to work in China to fulfil his contract during that period. He was in China for the entire autumn term, with the exception of three weeks, while his newborn stayed in the US, according to the agency. Nevertheless, WVU paid him a full salary for that semester, and the DOJ said that he therefore cheated the university out of more than $20,000 (£16,000). Lewis, who resigned from the university in August 2019, has agreed to compensate WVU as part of his plea agreement.

Lewis’s guilty plea came after Charles Lieber, chair of Harvard University’s chemistry department, was charged with fraud in similar circumstances in January. 

Meanwhile, a materials scientist and Chinese national, who is a permanent US resident, was sentenced to two years in prison at the end of February after pleading guilty to stealing and illegally transmitting proprietary information worth more than $1 billion (£800 million) from the US energy company where he worked. Hongjin Tan, whose research at Phillips 66 involved developing next generation battery technologies for stationary energy storage – specifically flow batteries, admitted copying and downloading research and development materials, without his employer’s permission.

‘Unscrupulous individuals like Hongjin Tan seek to steal American trade secrets to take home to China so they can replicate our technology,’ said Trent Shores of the DOJ’s Northern District of Oklahoma. ‘United States attorneys from coast-to-coast stand ready to combat China’s economic aggression that criminally threatens American industry.’