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United States charges prominent Harvard chemist with failing to disclose China ties

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston announced today it has charged Charles Lieber, the chair of Harvard University’s department of chemistry and chemical biology and a prominent nanoscience researcher, with making a false statement to federal investigators about his financial ties to a university and foreign talent recruitment program in China.

In unrelated cases, prosecutors simultaneously filed charges against two Chinese nationals, Yanqing Ye and Zaosong Zheng, who had been enrolled in scientific research programs at universities in Massachusetts.

Lieber, 60, is one of the highest-profile researchers to be caught up in a wide-ranging U.S. government effort to crack down on what officials have alleged is a systematic effort by China to take unfair advantage of federally funded research. He "is one of the most distinguished scientists of our time," says chemist Omar Yaghi of the University of California, Berkeley. "He has made tremendous contributions to chemistry, physics, biology, and engineering.” Harvard has placed Lieber on “indefinite” paid administrative leave, according to the Harvard Crimson

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) outlines its allegation against Lieber in a press release and an affidavit filed by an FBI agent. He has not been charged with economic espionage for passing along intellectual property. Instead, the allegation focuses on a financial relationship Lieber developed with the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) and China’s Thousand Talents Program beginning in 2011. Lieber concealed aspects of those ties from Harvard University and two federal agencies, the Department of Defense (DOD) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), that had given him grants, prosecutors allege. In particular, they allege Lieber made a false statement in April 2018 to a DOD investigator who asked him about his ties to China, and that he later misled Harvard when NIH asked the university about his ties to WUT.

According to the press release:

… [S]ince 2008, Dr. Lieber who has served as the Principal Investigator of the Lieber Research Group at Harvard University, which specialized in the area of nanoscience, has received more than $15,000,000 in grant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Department of Defense (DOD). These grants require the disclosure of significant foreign financial conflicts of interest, including financial support from foreign governments or foreign entities. Unbeknownst to Harvard University, beginning in 2011, Lieber became a ‘Strategic Scientist’ at Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) in China and was a contractual participant in China’s Thousand Talents Plan from in or about 2012 to 2017. China’s Thousand Talents Plan is one of the most prominent Chinese Talent recruitment plans that are designed to attract, recruit, and cultivate high-level scientific talent in furtherance of China’s scientific development, economic prosperity and national security. These talent programs seek to lure Chinese overseas talent and foreign experts to bring their knowledge and experience to China and reward individuals for stealing proprietary information. Under the terms of Lieber’s three-year Thousand Talents contract, WUT paid Lieber $50,000 USD per month, living expenses of up to 1,000,000 Chinese Yuan (approximately $158,000 USD at the time) and awarded him more than $1.5 million to establish a research lab at WUT. In return, Lieber was obligated to work for WUT ‘not less than nine months a year’ by ‘declaring international cooperation projects, cultivating young teachers and Ph.D. students, organizing international conference[s], applying for patents and publishing articles in the name of’ WUT.

The complaint alleges that in 2018 and 2019, Lieber lied about his involvement in the Thousand Talents Plan and affiliation with WUT.  On or about, April 24, 2018, during an interview with investigators, Lieber stated that he was never asked to participate in the Thousand Talents Program, but he ‘wasn’t sure’ how China categorized him. In November 2018, NIH inquired of Harvard whether Lieber had failed to disclose his then-suspected relationship with WUT and China’s Thousand Talents Plan. Lieber caused Harvard to falsely tell NIH that Lieber ‘had no formal association with WUT’ after 2012, that ‘WUT continued to falsely exaggerate’ his involvement with WUT in subsequent years, and that Lieber ‘is not and has never been a participant in’ China’s Thousand Talents Plan.

The charges against Ye, 29, and Zheng, 30, are not related to Lieber’s case. According to the press release:

…[Y]e is a Lieutenant of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the armed forces of the People’s Republic of China and member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). On her J-1 visa application, Ye falsely identified herself as a ‘student’ and lied about her ongoing military service at the National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), a top military academy directed by the CCP.  It is further alleged that while studying at Boston University’s (BU) Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biomedical Engineering from October 2017 to April 2019, Ye continued to work as a PLA Lieutenant completing numerous assignments from PLA officers such as conducting research, assessing U.S. military websites and sending U.S. documents and information to China.

… [O]n April 20, 2019, federal officers interviewed Ye at Boston’s Logan International Airport. During the interview, it is alleged that Ye falsely claimed that she had minimal contact with two NUDT professors who were high-ranking PLA officers.  However, a search of Ye’s electronic devices demonstrated that at the direction of one NUDT professor, who was a PLA Colonel, Ye had accessed U.S. military websites, researched U.S. military projects and compiled information for the PLA on two U.S. scientists with expertise in robotics and computer science. Furthermore, a review of a WeChat conversation revealed that Ye and the other PLA official from NUDT were collaborating on a research paper about a risk assessment model designed to decipher data for military applications. During the interview, Ye admitted that she held the rank of Lieutenant in the PLA and admitted she was a member of the CCP.

In August 2018, Zheng entered the United States on a J-1 visa and conducted cancer-cell research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston from Sept. 4, 2018, to Dec. 9, 2019. It is alleged that on Dec. 9, 2019, Zheng stole 21 vials of biological research and attempted to smuggle them out of the United States aboard a flight destined for China. Federal officers at Logan Airport discovered the vials hidden in a sock inside one of Zheng’s bags, and not properly packaged.  It is alleged that initially, Zheng lied to officers about the contents of his luggage, but later admitted he had stolen the vials from a lab at Beth Israel. Zheng stated that he intended to bring the vials to China to use them to conduct research in his own laboratory and publish the results under his own name.

Nelson Dong, an attorney with Dorsey & Whitney in Seattle who works on national security issues, says DOJ "seems intent on 'sending a message' to American higher education by bundling together in one single DOJ press release three quite different cases involving three different research institutions in the Boston area. … The 'common denominator' is that these three unrelated cases all seem to tie back to China and the Administration’s focus on combatting the perceived threats to U.S. national and economic security, particularly but not exclusively through the theft of American intellectual property or the abuse of American taxpayer dollars when U.S.-funded research is effectively misappropriated to benefit China’s universities and companies." The cases, Dong adds, "should thus provide much food for thought and discussion among university and research institution compliance and security personnel."

This is a developing story.