A sentencing hearing is a forum to dispense justice to someone convicted of a crime. But this week, US District Court Chief Judge Julie Robinson used the ruling by Franklin Tao, a chemical engineer who formerly worked at the University of Kansas (KU), Lawrence, to also speak at length about what what motivates academic researchers and how the US government appeared to misinterpret that culture by bringing criminal charges against Tao.
His comments are a rare example of a federal judge speaking publicly about the American academic enterprise and its pursuit of knowledge. Tao was convicted last year for failing to accurately report his interactions with a Chinese university to KU, which he said this week that he is no longer a faculty member. But Robinson, who was appointed by then-President George W. Bush in 2001, says the government mischaracterized Tao’s exploration of academic work in China as a malicious attempt to share the fruits of federally funded research with the chinese government.
Though Robinson was only speaking about Tao, his comments also raise questions about how the government has prosecuted some two dozen American scientists, most of them Chinese-born, in an effort by former President Donald Trump’s administration to stop Chinese economic espionage. . Human rights groups have said the campaign, called the China Initiative before it was renamed last year to target all nation-state threats to US economic and national security, engaged in the racial discrimination and had a chilling effect on international scientific collaborations.
In sentencing Tao, Robinson refused the government’s request to serve 30 months in prison and pay a $100,000 fine. Instead, it did not order any fines or additional jail time beyond the week he spent behind bars after his August 2019 arrest. It did order 2 years of supervision for Tao, 52, who used a monitoring on his ankle since his arrest.
Here are excerpts from Robinson’s remarks as he handed down that sentence in his Kansas City, Kansas, courtroom.
What Robinson said that Tao was doing
He’s a mid-career researcher. KU loves this man, and they should; he has brought them accolades, students, and certainly a lot of federal research dollars. But he’s trying to figure out his next steps.”
“He was in China testing the waters. But the People’s Republic of China did not arrive. They weren’t going to give him enough money to build the lab he needed and that would be even close to what he had at KU. His family did not want to move there. His children are American and did not want to go there. … So he figured out pretty quickly that this wasn’t going to work.”
On the inferences of a possible espionage
“This is not a case of espionage. Maybe that’s what the Justice Department thought was going on. …If it was, they presented absolutely no evidence [to support that claim]. If that happened, today I would be imposing a very different sentence.
On the long payoff of basic research
“Dr. Tao’s research is not the kind of research that [easily] monetized or traded. Someone called it fundamental research, with a time frame of 20 or 50 years. … It is shared globally by the scientific community, from which we have all benefited and which does not recognize borders. And that’s been a good thing throughout human history.”
On the integrity of the investigation
“It is so important that conflicts are revealed [to their universities and to federal funding agencies] and that people operate without bias and with integrity. But there is no evidence that there is any conflict of interest in this case.”
On a possible commitment conflict
“What the government is alleging is a time conflict. And yes, Dr. Tao was in China. [when] he was supposed to be overseeing the investigation at KU. But it turns out that he was doing both, because apparently he is someone who can work 70 or 80 hours a week consistently ”.
On his failure to disclose his activity in China
“Should I have revealed these things? Absolutely. … Which is why I denied your motion to acquittal on the false statement charge. Dr. Tao sits here as a convicted felon, having suffered the consequences of that for the past 3.5 years and well into the future.”
“He misled KU about what he was doing and where he was; No doubt about that. … And frankly, if Dr. Tao had revealed what he was doing, maybe we wouldn’t be here.”
“Many people apply for other jobs and don’t tell their employers, for obvious reasons. [But] that is not a federal crime unless they obtained money or property from their employer to which they were not entitled. And that’s not what happened here.”
On whether prison time is a necessary deterrent
“I do not mean to suggest that investigators need not comply with [institutional and federal] information requirements. Are important; that is why those rules are in place. [But] I find it hard to believe that a custodial sentence [prison time] it is necessary to specifically deter Dr. Tao now, when he is in the process of losing his job and after all the suffering we have heard about.”
“Other investigators have seen what happened to Dr. Tao and other people prosecuted as part of [the China Initiative] and they are terrified that it could happen to them. … I think the scientific community at large is deterred from seeing someone of Dr. Tao’s acclaim and achievements come crashing down because of this, so I don’t think a prison sentence is necessary to further deter people.” .