A NASA scientist was charged with lying to the FBI about participating in a Chinese government recruitment program

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Aerial views of the Ames Research Centre, NASA Research Park, and Moffett Airfield in California. Dominic Hart/NASA
  • The US Department of Justice alleges a chief scientist at NASA was illegally a member of a Chinese government recruitment program.
  • Meyya Meyyappan, 66, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to lying to federal investigators about his ties to foreign universities and a Chinese government recruitment initiative.
  • Meyyappan was a member of the Thousand Talents Program, a Chinese government group that works to recruit international experts in scientific research and innovation.
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A chief scientist at NASA pleaded guilty on Wednesday to lying to the FBI and investigators about his ties to a Chinese government recruitment program and several Chinese, South Korean, and Japanese universities.

Meyya Meyyappan, 66, has been employed by NASA since 1996. In 2006, he rose to the rank of chief scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Centre in California. According to the Department of Justice, Meyyappan failed to notify the US about his outside employment between 2009 and 2020 and later lied to federal investigators during questioning.

“Meyya Meyyappan held a trusted position at NASA with access to valuable intellectual property,” Acting US Attorney Audrey Strauss said in a statement. “In violation of the terms of his employment and relevant laws and regulations, Meyyappan failed to disclose participation in a Chinese government recruitment program, and subsequently lied about it to NASA investigators, FBI agents, and our Office. Now, having admitted his crime, Meyyappan awaits sentencing.”

In 2016, Meyyappan applied to the Thousand Talents Program, a Chinese government initiative to recruit people with access to foreign intelligence and intellectual property. According to court records, Meyyappan was accepted into the program and later travelled to China and recommended others into joining the program.

Additionally, Meyyappan was employed between 2009 and 2020 as a visiting professor at three separate universities in China, South Korea, and Japan. During this time, he travelled to the countries on numerous occasions where he gave lectures, received compensation, and wrote research papers.

According to prosecutors, NASA required approval for any outside employment activities, including travel and compensation. It was also mandatory by federal regulation to annually report any outside employment and compensation to the US Office of Government Ethics.

Meyyappan failed to disclose his involvement with the Thousand Talents Program or any ties to Chinese or South Korean universities in any of his required reports, according to the DOJ. When interviewed, prosecutors allege that Meyyappan lied to investigators and denied any involvement with the Thousand Talents Program and the Chinese university.

“Members of U.S. government agencies are strictly prohibited from maintaining undisclosed affiliations with foreign entities, especially those that are actively seeking our intellectual property and technological advances,” FBI Assistant Director William F. Sweeney Jr. said in a statement. “Meyyappan violated this sacred rule, and then lied to FBI agents about it. Actions like those carried about by Meyyappan can have security implications, and his charges should serve as a warning to others thinking about engaging in the same type of activity.”

According to a release from the DOJ, Meyyappan’s charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine up to $US250,000 or “twice the gross gain or loss from the offence.” His sentencing is scheduled for June 16.