China Power | Society

Harvard’s Chemistry Department Chair Arrested for Lying About Ties to China’s Thousand Talents Program

Charles Lieber’s case ties into broader efforts by the U.S. government to force disclosures of ties with China-sponsored research programs.

Bonnie Girard
Harvard’s Chemistry Department Chair Arrested for Lying About Ties to China’s Thousand Talents Program
Credit: Pixabay

The Chinese government told Dr. Charles Lieber, chairman of Harvard University’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, that he was one of only 40 “famous foreign experts from the world” chosen by the Chinese government to receive research funding and a fantastic salary. He took the bait.

Signing a Chinese “Thousand Talents Plan” contract in 2012 worth $50,000 a month, and another 1,000,000 Chinese renminbi a year in living expenses, Lieber agreed to work with Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) to establish a research lab, work with teachers and graduate students, organize international conferences, write papers under the WUT name, and apply for patents that would be attributed to WUT, all while working for Harvard, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

In addition, he would receive $1.5 million from WUT and the Chinese government to set up a research laboratory at WUT.

When questioned in April 2018 by U.S. Department of Defense officials, and again in January 2019 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), about his ties to the Chinese university, however, he lied, according to Justice Department and FBI documents available on the case.

Lieber was arrested on Tuesday, January 28, at his Harvard office. He was charged “with one count of making a materially false, fictitious and fraudulent statement.” He faces up to five years in prison, and up to $250,000 in fines, according to reports.

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Reports also say that he was brought into court in handcuffs, and that he is being held in custody until his next court appearance later this week.

The FBI special agent in charge of the case says in his “Affidavit in Support of Application for Criminal Complaint” that “at all times relevant to this complaint, Lieber served as the Principal Investigator of the Lieber Research Group at Harvard University,” which has “received more than $15,000,000 in grant funding from the NIH [National Institutes of Health] and DoD [Department of Defense] since 2008.”

According to the affidavit, the Lieber Group website lists the DoD Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), as its principal sponsors, along with the NIH.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) responded quickly to the developments.

Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier, director of OSTP, in his statement on the case said that “failures to disclose the receipt of substantial resources, participation in certain types of programs, and dual employment distort decisions about the appropriate use of taxpayer funds.”

The result is “hidden transfers of information, know-how and time.”

He went on to say that “this is exactly why OSTP launched the Joint Committee on the Research Environment,” known as JCORE.

Droegemeier emphasized that JCORE has a “coordinated approach that includes the research community as a whole.” That means working with the full spectrum of federal agencies, along with the private, academic, professional society, and nonprofit research worlds.

It’s important to continue “successful international collaborations,” Droegemeier said, but “protecting the integrity of our research system” has to be done at the same time.

“The challenges posed by foreign-government sponsored talent recruitment programs” are met by “behavior-based” approaches, he explained, echoing comments made by Assistant Attorney General John Demers at a Homeland Security Experts Group event held at the Wilson Center earlier this month.

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According to Lieber’s biography on the Harvard research lab that bears his name,

Lieber has been a pioneer in nanoscience and nanotechnology where he has originated new paradigms that have defined the rational growth, characterization, and original applications of functional nanometer diameter wires and heterostructures. Lieber has provided seminal concepts central to the bottom-up paradigm of nanoscience, and has been a leader in defining directions and demonstrating applications of nanomaterials in areas ranging from electronics, computing, and photonics, as well as pioneering the interface between electronics with biology and medicine, including his current focus in brain science.

Lieber was a major prize for the Chinese government. The Chinese government’s Tenth Five-Year Plan (2001-2005) included the development of nanotechnology, in which Lieber is a recognized world leader, under its new materials and advanced manufacturing category, a report written for the U.S.-China Security Commission (USCC) in 2015 noted.

Lieber’s academic and professional awards run into the dozens, according to his CV. Chief among them is the 2012 Wolf Prize in Chemistry, an award considered second only to the Nobel Prize in prestige and honor in the field of chemistry.

“Based on his citation impact scores, Lieber was ranked #1 in Chemistry for the decade 2000-2010 by Thomson Reuters,” his CV adds.

China’s National Medium to Long-Term Plan for the Development of Science and Technology, (2005-2020), known as the MLP, includes the concept of development by “leapfrogging.”

“Leapfrogging in this context means to jump ahead to current levels of technology without having to pass through the intervening stages,” the report for the USCC said.

Chinese scientists and engineers, with wholehearted support from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), have long pursued the adoption of modern technology by creating and leveraging relationships with foreign actors who have access to or are key leaders in their fields.

A typical tactic of the approach is to flatter the target with recognition and praise, often obsequiously. Used among Chinese themselves, it’s an accepted cultural custom in which most participate but few take seriously.

Foreigners sometimes fall for it, however. In Lieber’s case, clues are in plain sight.

Lieber’s CV, still uploaded on Harvard’s website despite reports that he has been put on administrative leave and is not allowed on campus, lists the more than 400 professional papers to which Lieber has contributed, and the more than 50 patents that bear his name. In the vast majority of both papers and patents, Lieber appears to have collaborated with and credited a variety of Chinese scientists, going back as far back as 1998.

In addition, Lieber lists honorary professorships at seven Chinese universities, and one institute belonging to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, China’s pre-eminent body guiding the development of the sciences and scientific policy in China. There are no other honorary professorships listed by Lieber anywhere else in the world.

Aside from the accolades and recognition given by China, however, Lieber seems to also have placed interest in the more material rewards for his time and talents, according to the FBI affidavit, which includes copies of the contract that Lieber signed, as well as emails with his Chinese handlers. In one email, the Chinese WUT employee says, “I want to know the way you prefer to be paid…Option one. I help you open a new bank account in the Chinese bank…Option Two. I can prepare the payment in cash.”

Apparently, that proposed arrangement did not ring any alarm bells for Lieber. In February 2014, the FBI affidavit shows that for one trip to China, Lieber requested “~½ of salary (for the current period) in US dollars, with the remainder deposited into the bank account that was set-up.”