Jan 28, 2020 - World

Harvard scientist charged with lying about ties to China

Photo: Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Federal prosecutors have charged Charles Lieber, chair of the Harvard University chemistry department, with lying about funds he obtained through a Chinese government recruitment program.

Why it matters: Lieber's arrest marks one of the highest-profile cases yet in a sweeping U.S. government investigation of undisclosed ties between U.S. research institutions and China.

Details: A celebrated scientist in the field of nanoscale electronics, Lieber is accused of making false statements to investigators in 2018 and 2019.

  • Beginning in 2011, Lieber served as a "strategic scientist" at Wuhan University of Technology, according to a Justice Department press release on Jan. 28.
  • From around 2012–2017, Lieber also allegedly participated in China's Thousand Talents program, a Chinese government program aimed at recruiting foreign experts in order to strengthen China's own research institutions.
  • As the recipient of millions of dollars of Defense Department funding, Lieber was required by law to disclose foreign funding or conflicts of interest. But Lieber allegedly failed to do so.

By the numbers: The Chinese university that Lieber partnered with allegedly paid him a monthly salary of $50,000 and as much as $158,000 per year for living expenses. He also received more than $1.5 million to build a lab in China.

The big picture: The FBI is seeking to crack down on the rampant theft of scientific and biomedical research perpetrated by people with ties to a foreign government or entity.

  • A recent report from the JASON program at MITRE Corp, which manages research on behalf of several U.S. government agencies, stated that foreign interference in and theft of U.S. research "represents a threat to our fundamental research enterprise and, in the longer run, our economic security and national security."
  • But another concern, according to the report, is the potential for overreaction that might inhibit scientific collaboration. According to the report: "The benefits of openness in research and of the inclusion of talented foreign researchers dictate against measures that would wall off particular areas of fundamental research."

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