Former Harvard Chemistry Chair Indicted for False Statements About China Funding

Former Harvard Chemistry Chair Indicted for False Statements About China Funding
Charles Lieber at an award ceremony in the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem on May 13, 2012. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/GettyImages)
Cathy He
Eva Fu

The former chair of Harvard University’s chemistry department was indicted on June 9 on charges of making false statements about funding he received from the Chinese regime, the U.S. Department of Justice said.

Charles Lieber, 61, was arrested in January for allegedly lying about his participation in the Chinese state-backed Thousand Talents recruitment program. A federal grand jury on June 9 indicted him on two counts of making false statements to federal authorities.

The recruitment plan, which aims to attract top experts around the world to work on projects in China, has drawn scrutiny from U.S. officials, who say it facilitates the transfer of American intellectual property to China.

Lieber, a professor specializing in nanoscience, allegedly had years of participation in the Thousand Talents program while working on sensitive U.S. research, prosecutors said. He has received more than $15 million of funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Department of Defense since 2008, according to the department.

Disclosure of foreign funding and collaboration is required when receiving such federal funding.

Lieber began working with the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) as a “strategic scientist” in 2011, and was involved in the Thousand Talents program from 2012 through 2017 as a contractual participant, according to court documents.

Under the contract, WUT paid him a salary of $50,000 per month with up to 1 million yuan (then $158,000) of living expenses over three years, the documents said. Lieber, in exchange, would work for WUT for at least nine months per year by applying for patents and publishing research for WUT, mentoring students and teachers, and conducting international cooperation projects.

In January 2013, Lieber signed an agreement for a five-year “cooperative research program” on behalf of Harvard—without consulting Harvard officials—allowing WUT researchers a two-month visit to his chemistry department each year, according to court documents. The objective of the agreement was to foster advanced research on nanowire-based lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles.

Harvard’s representatives told investigators that Leiber didn’t have the authority to enter into such contracts.

He also received $1.5 million for establishing a joint research lab at WUT using Harvard’s name and logo without Harvard’s knowledge—a violation of the school’s policy. When confronted by Harvard officials, he lied by saying WUT acted without his consent.

According to the complaint, Lieber denied any engagement with the Thousand Talents program when Defense Department investigators questioned him about his foreign research disclosure in April 2018. He said he was never asked to join the program, but “wasn’t sure” how China categorized him.

He then emailed his associate, saying he “lost a lot of sleep worrying about” the WUT webpage, where he was listed as the director of the lab, adding that he “will be careful about what I discuss with Harvard University” and that “none of this will be shared with government investigators.”

Upon a similar inquiry from NIH in November 2018, Lieber caused Harvard to falsely tell NIH that Lieber “had no formal association with WUT,” and he “is not and has never been a participant in” China’s Thousand Talents program, prosecutors aid.

Lieber faces up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000 for each count of making false statements.

The administration has been ramping up efforts to counter Chinese state-sanctioned IP theft at U.S. research and academic institutions. Last month, President Donald Trump canceled the visas of students from universities affiliated with the Chinese military in a bid to tackle the threat of academic espionage.

Also in May, three researchers were separately arrested on charges relating to lying about funding received from the Chinese regime.

A professor at the University of Arkansas was arrested on wire fraud on May 8 for failing to disclose funding from the Thousand Talents program and Chinese companies. Days later, a former Emory University professor was convicted for tax fraud related to his earnings while participating in the plan.

A former researcher at the Cleveland Clinic, one of the top-rated hospitals in the world, was arrested on May 13 for allegedly lying about receiving funding from Chinese sources while being a recipient of more than $3.6 million in grant funding from the NIH.

Cathy He is the politics editor at the Washington D.C. bureau. She was previously an editor for U.S.-China and a reporter covering U.S.-China relations.
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