Harvard’s Chemistry Chair Charged on Alleged Undisclosed Ties to China
Charles Lieber allegedly lied to Defense Department, National Institutes of Health about Chinese government funding
The chair of Harvard University’s chemistry department was arrested Tuesday on charges of allegedly lying to the U.S. about millions in Chinese funding he has received, in an escalation of U.S. efforts to counter what officials describe as Beijing’s aggressive recruitment at U.S. universities.
In a separate case also unsealed Tuesday, a researcher at Boston University was also charged with failing to disclose her affiliation with China’s People’s Liberation Army while working at the university.
The Harvard professor, Charles Lieber, allegedly misled the Defense Department in 2018 and the National Institutes of Health in 2019 about his participation in China’s Thousand Talents Plan, the complaint said.
U.S. authorities have raised alarms in particular about the so-called talent programs run by the Chinese government, which officials say create conflicts of interest and offer incentives to bring intellectual property back to China.
Prosecutors have brought a series of cases in recent months alleging that researchers at U.S. universities and labs didn’t disclose funding they were receiving from such programs, or tried to steal information to take to China.
Mr. Lieber, who has been at Harvard since 1991, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. His research team, the Lieber Research Group at Harvard, has received $15 million from NIH and DOD since 2008, the complaint said.
When Defense Department investigators asked Mr. Lieber in 2018 about his foreign research collaborations, he told them he had never been asked to participate in the Thousand Talents Program, the complaint said. But Mr. Lieber had signed such a talent contract with Wuhan University in 2012, the complaint said.
NIH also asked Harvard about Mr. Lieber’s affiliation with Wuhan that same year, the complaint said. After interviewing Mr. Lieber, Harvard told NIH in January 2019 that Mr. Lieber had no formal affiliation with Wuhan after 2012 and that he had never participated in the Thousand Talents Program, even though Mr. Lieber had a formal relationship with the university through 2017, the complaint said.
In conjunction with the program, Mr. Lieber became a “strategic scientist” at Wuhan University of Technology, according to the complaint. For “significant periods” from 2012 to 2017, his contract called for a $50,000 a month salary on top of $150,000 in living expenses paid by WUT, it said.
He was also awarded more than $1.5 million by WUT and the Chinese government to set up a research lab, it said.
“The charges brought by the U.S. government against Professor Lieber are extremely serious,” a Harvard spokesman said Tuesday. “Harvard is cooperating with federal authorities, including the National Institutes of Health, and is initiating its own review of the alleged misconduct. Professor Lieber has been placed on indefinite administrative leave.”
Mr. Lieber has done pioneering work in nanoscience and helped develop tiny wires with diameters thousands of times smaller than a human hair, according to a citation from the Welch Foundation, which funds chemical research and recognized his work last year. He has “made groundbreaking advances at the boundary between nanoelectronics and medicine, including the development of powerful bio-nanoelectronic sensors capable of detecting diseases down to the level of a single infectious virus particle,” the foundation said of his work.
On the Lieber Research Group’s website, Mr. Lieber says he is developing a mesh to be injected through a syringe into parts of the brain to better understand how the brain works and to treat disease and brain injury. The long-term goal is to enhance “human performance via brain-machine interface.”