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Acclaimed Harvard Scientist Is Arrested, Accused Of Lying About Ties To China

An FBI affidavit that lays out the case against Charles Lieber includes what federal prosecutors say is a contract between the Harvard researcher and a university in China.
U.S. Attorney's Office/Screenshot by NPR
An FBI affidavit that lays out the case against Charles Lieber includes what federal prosecutors say is a contract between the Harvard researcher and a university in China.

Updated at 3:20 p.m. ET

Charles Lieber, the chair of Harvard University's Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, has been arrested and criminally charged with making "false, fictitious and fraudulent statements" to the U.S. Defense Department about his ties to a Chinese government program to recruit foreign scientists and researchers.

The Justice Department says Lieber, 60, lied about his contact with the Chinese program known as the Thousand Talents Plan, which the U.S. has previously flagged as a serious intelligence concern. He also is accused of lying about about a lucrative contract he signed with China's Wuhan University of Technology.

In an affidavit unsealed Tuesday, FBI Special Agent Robert Plumb said Lieber, who led a Harvard research group focusing on nanoscience, had established a research lab at the Wuhan university — apparently unbeknownst to Harvard.

In response to the charges against Lieber, Harvard said in a statement to NPR: "The charges brought by the U.S. government against Professor Lieber are extremely serious. 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."

The arrangement between Lieber and the Chinese institution spanned "significant" periods of time between at least 2012 and 2017, according to the affidavit. It says the deal called for Lieber to be paid up to $50,000 a month, in addition to $150,000 per year "for living and personal expenses."

"Lieber was also awarded more than $1.5 million by WUT and the Chinese government to establish a research lab and conduct research at WUT," the document states.

For a large part of the time frame in question, Lieber was also the principal investigator on at least six U.S. Defense Department research grants, with a cumulative value of more than $8 million, according to the affidavit. It also says he was the principal investigator on more than $10 million in grants funded by the National Institutes of Health.

"These grants require the disclosure of significant foreign financial conflicts of interest, including financial support from foreign governments or foreign entities," the U.S. Attorney's Office in Massachusetts said in a statement announcing the charges against Lieber.

In interviews with Defense Department investigators in 2018 and 2019, Lieber said that while he had heard of the Thousand Talents Plan, he had never been asked to be part of it, according to the affidavit. Lieber's email correspondence suggests he signed a three-year agreement and employment contract with WUT in 2012.

"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 U.S. Attorney's Office said.

On its website, the Lieber Research Group at Harvard says its work is meant "to push scientific boundaries in biology and medicine."

Lieber's work ranged from looking for new ways to produce nanoscale materials to researching areas nanoelectronic sensors and developing "cyborg tissue" that would integrate nanoelectronic devices into synthetic tissue.

In 2017, Harvard bestowed its highest faculty honor on Lieber, naming him a University Professor – a title he shared with only 25 other faculty members, as The Harvard Gazette reported. But the acclaimed academic is now barred from the university's campus.

An arrest warrant for Lieber was issued Monday. The U.S. Attorney's Office case against him initially was sealed after being filed in federal court; a court order lifted that seal Tuesday morning.

U.S. officials have repeatedly warned that China's ambitious Thousand Talents program could put a wide range of U.S. scientific interests at risk.

"The worry is that China might be eroding America's technology advantage — not just by support for research, but also by theft of scientific ideas and corporate espionage," as NPR's Joe Palca reported in 2018.

John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security and head of the Justice Department's China Initiative, said in a statement that the charges against Lieber "illustrate the serious and persistent threat of China's efforts to steal intellectual property and research from our nation's universities."

He added, "American universities, while maintaining the open and collaborative research and learning environment that has made them the best in the world, should take this threat seriously and continue to take actions to confront it, including ensuring transparency in their programs' funding sources and their professors' commitments, and having secure physical and internet security for their sensitive research."

The case against Lieber was one of three announced Tuesday by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston that officials say illustrate the threat of Chinese economic espionage.

Yanqing Ye, 29, who is currently in China, is charged with one count each of "visa fraud, making false statements, acting as an agent of a foreign government and conspiracy." She had been working at Boston University and is accused of lying about her position as a lieutenant in the Chinese military.

Zaosong Zheng, 30, was arrested last month at Boston's Logan International Airport and is charged with allegedly attempting to smuggle vials of biological materials and other research materials stolen from U.S labs. Zheng, who was a a Harvard-sponsored cancer researcher, has been indicted on that charge along with a count of making false statements.

Lieber earned his doctorate in chemistry from Stanford University in 1985. Before he joined Harvard in 1991, his academic career included stops at the California Institute of Technology and Columbia University.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.