Optica Under the Microscope

Congressional leaders are asking about anonymous donations from a Chinese technology company

In 2021, the Optical Society of America (OSA) rebranded itself Optica, leveraging the name of its flagship journal in an effort to broaden its appeal and generalize its remit. As CEO Elizabeth Rogan stated at the time:

. . . it’s already a well-known name due to our highly-regarded journal, it’s geographically neutral, and it translates well in many languages.

Now, Optica is under the microscope.

The leaders of the Congressional Committee on Science, Space, and Technology issued a letter last Thursday expressing concerns based on reporting earlier this month from Bloomberg that Optica had accepted millions in undisclosed donations from Huawei, which then were channeled to US researchers.

  • In case you were wondering if Optica (OSA) is in need of funds:
    • In 2020, OSA received a Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loan in the amount of $5,250,745 — despite being a tax-exempt 501(c)3, paying less than $20,000 in taxes in any recent year
    • The PPP loan was forgiven in 2022
    • The OSA had more than $100M in investment funds at the time

The lede to the Bloomberg story is tight and riveting:

Huawai Technologies Co., the Chinese telecommunications giant blacklisted by the US, is secretly funding cutting-edge research at American universities including Harvard through an independent Washington-based foundation.

The reporter of the original story, Kate O’Keeffe, started at Bloomberg just this March as their US-China reporter, having left the Wall Street Journal after more than eight years in that role. Prior to this, she was the Global Gambling Reporter at WSJ, which I found interesting for reasons that may become clearer as we go.

While a number of top research institutions cut ties with Huawei in 2019, the choice of Harvard in the lede may wink at another related matter, as last year a former Harvard University professor was convicted of lying to federal investigators about his ties to a Chinese-run science recruitment program. He was sentenced to supervised release and ordered to pay more than $83,000 in restitution and fines.

Huawei was banned from doing business in the US by the Biden Administration in 2022 — along with ZTE — because they were deemed to represent a security risk if allowed to sell hardware to US citizens, corporations, and governmental entities.

TikTok is in the process of going through either a ban or a sale to US interests for similar software-related reasons.

This particular way of funneling money isn’t illegal when it comes to Huawei, as research intended for publication doesn’t fall under the purview of the ban. According to Rogan, the entire board of Optica approved Huawei’s involvement.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem.