Huawei's hidden hand in optics research contest shocks scholars

US universities awarded money from a corp they had severed ties with

Updated Huawei sponsored an optics technology research competition run by the Optica Foundation, and donated at least a million dollars to the organization.

The competition in question is the Optica Foundation Challenge, which awards $100,000 each to ten winners. Since it began in 2022, it has been funded solely by Huawei, according to Bloomberg. The publication got its hands on internal Optica documents and talked to sources familiar with the matter, and Huawei confirmed that it is in fact a sponsor of Optica.

The rub appears to be that while Huawei is disclosed as a sponsor of the foundation, it wasn't very clear that the Chinese giant was bankrolling that particular competition nor to what degree.

"The Bloomberg story has raised some important questions not just for the Optica Foundation but the research community at large," Elizabeth Rogan, CEO of Optica, told The Register.

We are taking a holistic review of our policies to identify ways to increase transparency

"The foundation's donors are clearly listed in our annual report. We are taking a holistic review of our policies to identify ways to increase transparency as the foundation continues to support young researchers in our community."

Huawei's involvement with Optica and the Optica Foundation Challenge was kept under wraps. The challenge's webpage conspicuously doesn't name any sponsors, unlike Optica's other prize competitions.

Huawei also has an affiliation with Xiang Liu, one of the ten members of the challenge's selection committee and Huawei's chief optical standards expert. However when Optica announced Liu would be a moderator at a virtual event, the group merely described the Huawei exec as an Optica fellow and omitted naming his employer.

The sponsorship was a surprise to applicants to the challenge, which included scientists from universities that have severed ties with Huawei, and even a judge, all of whom only learned about the competition's funding when reporters informed them.

The report also notes that the Optica Foundation Challenge awards 20 times more money than the next biggest prize, and that Huawei was listed as one of Optica's biggest donors with a score of at least $1 million donated since the group's founding in 2002, though Huawei only became a donor in 2021. This is ahead of Google and Meta, which have donated at least $200,000.

Optica has not disclosed exact donation figures, and since the $1 million tier is the highest listed, it's only clear that Huawei has donated at least $1 million.

Universities unaware about Huawei's involvement

In a statement to Bloomberg, Huawei says it kept its name out of the public eye because it didn't want its sponsorship to be seen as promotional. However, the report suggests that Huawei's donations were to make sure it was kept in the research loop as many US universities have stopped working with the company due to US government sanctions, which continue to escalate.

Regardless of why Huawei's involvement was kept under wraps, it's an unwelcome revelation for the universities that accepted the awards on the behalf of winners, per Optica's rules. Harvard, which says it doesn't work with Huawei, was among the universities that accepted prize money.

Texas A&M was particularly unhappy with Huawei's involvement, and told Bloomberg that it and two researchers applying for the award were unaware about the Chinese tech juggernaut's sponsorship. "We have processes that would identify and prevent associations with Huawei unless they were being heavily obfuscated like this," chief research security officer Kevin Gamache said, implying that the university would not have engaged with the competition had it known of Huawei's sponsorship.

The legality of Huawei having financial ties to Optica is unclear since Optica-funded science is meant to be published anyway. However, the arrangement to keep Huawei's identity out of the picture is bound to ruffle feathers, and the US government is no stranger to upgrading sanctions. ®

Updated to add

A Huawei spokesperson said: "Given that Huawei's contribution to the Optica Foundation is openly declared on the foundation's website, any suggestion of secrecy is absurd. Huawei is proud to be one of many technology companies from around the world supporting the Foundation's important work."

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