By Sharon Weinberger

Could publishing a scientific article constitute an act of economic espionage? That question lies at the heart of charges against a Massachusetts-based scientist accused of passing U.S. trade secrets to China.

Ke-xue Huang, a Canadian citizen and permanent U.S. resident, was arrested on July 13, and has been charged under a law designed to protect intellectual property held by U.S. companies. At a bail hearing last week in Massachusetts, the U.S. government claimed that the scientist provided secrets belonging to Dow AgroSciences, based in Indianapolis, Ind., to the Hunan Normal University in Changsha, China. If convicted of passing the secrets, said to be worth some $100 million, Huang could face up to 15 years in prison for each of 12 counts of economic espionage.

Congress passed the Economic Espionage Act in 1996 to counter an apparent rise in foreign spies trading in commercial, rather than military, secrets. Six other cases have been prosecuted under the law, but Huang's could set a precedent for the law to be applied to industry scientists and academic researchers publishing in the open literature. This isn't the first time a scientist has faced prison time for sharing research with China; a physicist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, was last year sentenced to four years in prison for violating export control laws. He had provided technical data to scientists in China and worked on sensitive technologies with foreign graduate students.

"It is interesting that there are--or seem to be--more cases of research triggering some government reaction, whether this is due to export control or other issues," says Thomas Zurbuchen, a space scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who has been involved in efforts to reform export control restrictions on universities.

Huang's problems stem from research related to a review article. Co-authored with scientists at Hunan Normal University and James Zahn, a researcher at Coskata, a biofuel company in Warrenville, Ill., the paper describes work on a new class of insecticides that Dow has been making and marketing. The government alleges that the article contains confidential information--and that publishing it constituted theft of a trade secret, says James Duggan, Huang's lawyer. At the hearing, however, prosecutors indicated that the article is not the sole basis for the charges, which also involve e-mail communications relating to the research.

Huang worked for Dow from 2003 to 2008, but by the time of his arrest had moved to Qteros, a company based in Marlborough, Mass., that works on biofuels.

Originally from China, Huang had studied biology at China's Jilin Agricultural University, and earned a PhD in Japan. After a two-year postdoctoral stint in the mid-1990s at Texas A&M University in College Station, where he worked on sequencing biosynthetic genes for vitamin B12 production, he went to Rice University in Houston. His postdoctoral adviser there, George Bennett, says he "couldn't imagine" Huang intentionally doing something illegal. Dow has declined to comment on any specifics of the case.

Todd Sullivan, an attorney in Raleigh, N.C., who specializes in trade-secret laws, compares economic espionage prosecutions to "unicorn sightings" because the government so rarely pursues them. The government has, in fact, successfully tried only one of the other six economic espionage cases. In another case, last year, a jury acquitted two Chinese-born engineers who had been charged with stealing secrets from a Californian semiconductor company and passing them on to China.

Huang's case resembles the others in that all but one involved China and Chinese scientists. The challenge for the U.S. government will be proving that he provided intellectual property to benefit a foreign government, or an entity controlled by a foreign government. June Teufel Dreyer, a political scientist at the University of Miami in Florida who follows Chinese espionage cases, says it will be "devilishly difficult" for prosecutors to prove that a university is controlled by the Chinese government.

But the Department of Justice is clearly determined to try. The government is fighting attempts to release Huang on bail, and has asked that, even if he is released, his use of the Internet and e-mail be restricted.

In the meantime, Duggan says that he does not concede that his client stole trade secrets, or even that he violated any employment agreement with Dow. He says that Huang was motivated not by espionage, but by his desire to improve insecticides and benefit crop production. "His motives were excellent motives," Duggan insists. "Dow's motives are to protect its profits."