Charles Lieber, the well-recognized chair of Harvard University’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, was 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 alleges that Lieber, 60, lied about his contact with the Chinese program known as the Thousand Talents Plan, which the U.S.says is a serious intelligence concern. He also is accused of lying about a contract he signed with China’s Wuhan University of Technology which paid him significant sums of money. 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.
According to the Affidavit, the arrangement between Lieber and the Chinese institution spanned “significant” periods of time between at least 2012 and 2017,. 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.”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.
Two Chinese researchers were charged with being agents of a foreign government. They were Ye Yanqing, a Boston University robotics researcher who prosecutors said lied about being in the Chinese army, and Zheng Zaosong, a cancer researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre who was arrested last month allegedly trying to smuggle research samples out of the country. Prosecutors said Ye is a lieutenant in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, which she did not disclose when she obtained a visa to enter the United States. She is accused of passing information on research conducted at Boston University to China’s government.
He obtained a B.A. in Chemistry from Franklin & Marshall College, graduating with honors in 1981. He went on to earn his doctorate at Stanford University in Chemistry, carrying out research on surface chemistry in the lab of Nathan Lewis, followed by a two-year postdoc at Caltech in the lab of Harry Gray on long-distance electron transfer in metalloproteins. A self-confessed competitive person, Lieber feels “pressure to get things done quickly and – ideally – first and to break new ground: “What I like to do as a scientist is to work on things that have not already been shown to work”. Studying the effects of dimensionality and anisotropy on the properties of quasi-2D planar structures and quasi-1D structures in his early career at Columbia and Harvard led him to become interested in the question of how one could make a one-dimensional wire, and to the epiphany that if a technology were to emerge from nascent work on nanoscale materials “it would require interconnections – exceedingly small, wire-like structures to move information around, move electrons around, and connect devices together.” Lieber was an early proponent of using the fundamental physical advantages of the very small to meld the worlds of optics and electronics and create interfaces between nanoscale materials and biological structures, and “to develop entirely new technologies, technologies we cannot even predict today.
U.S. federal investigators have made counter-intelligence and countering intellectual property theft a priority in recent years. Also this week, a former researcher based at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a U.S. federal government lab involved in the design and handling of nuclear weapons, pleaded guilty to making a false statement to the U.S. government. The former researcher, Turab Lookman, was also alleged to have been a part of China’s TTP outreach.
Jeffrey Newman represents whistleblowers. His email is Jeff@JeffNeman.com