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Harvard’s Charles Lieber indicted for lying to the feds, bringing US researchers’ China ties back to the spotlight

Five months after his shocking arrest, Charles Lieber has been indicted by a federal grand jury for lying to authorities about his involvement in China’s Thousand Talents Program.

The 61-year-old scientist — who chaired Harvard’s chemistry department and led a lab specializing in nanoscience before he was arrested and placed on administrative leave in late January — is facing two counts of making false statements. He will be arraigned in federal court at a later date, and is expected to contest the charges.

While Lieber was not the first American scientist not of Chinese ethnicity to be swept up in the FBI’s probe into academic espionage, his case stood out because of his high profile and the severity of the potential consequences. From a DOJ release:

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The charge of making false statements provides for a sentence of up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000.

Amid some renewed tension in US-China relations — with President Donald Trump pointing fingers at China’s initial handling of the coronavirus outbreak, and Xi Jinping essentially daring the US by imposing a national security law on Hong Kong — American officials are said to be considering further restrictions on the entry of Chinese students as retaliation. The reports sparked new debates around the Trump administration’s accusations that China has been stealing scientific secrets by infiltrating top organizations. Within the biomedical enterprise, academic espionage is an acknowledged problem, although scientists are divided on what counts as spying, how pervasive it is and whether the government is throwing out the baby with the bath water.

As an internal investigation by the Moffitt Cancer Center highlighted, collaborating with or even receiving funds from Chinese universities aren’t an offense in the government and research institutions’ eyes. It only becomes an issue when researchers hide their affiliation — time commitment as well as payments — even when no secrets are apparently divulged.

At Moffitt, the failure to report cost six top officials their job, including its former CEO and acclaimed hematologist Alan List.

Lieber’s ties to China allegedly began in 2011 when he, “unbeknownst to Harvard University,” became a strategic scientist at Wuhan University of Technology. For the next three years, he would sign onto the Thousand Talents Plan, which is designed to recruit top brains like himself.

Under that contract, the DOJ said he was paid a salary of $50,000 per month, living expenses of up to approximately $158,000 USD, and awarded more than $1.5 million to establish a research lab at the university. In return, he allegedly agreed to no less than nine months of work per year.

All of that came in on top of the $15 million in grants Lieber has received from the NIH over the years.

But when the feds came knocking in April 2018, he told investigators that he was never asked to participate in Thousand Talents, according to the complaint. Harvard, allegedly taking him by his word, also told the NIH he had no formal association with WUT after 2012 and that the Wuhan institution was falsely exaggerating his role there.

His lawyer, Marc Mukasey, told the Harvard Crimson that the government has it wrong, and that Lieber is the victim, not the perpetrator.

“Professor Lieber has dedicated his life to science and to his students,” Mukasey wrote. “Not money, not fame, just his science and his students. […] “When justice is done, Charlie’s good name will be restored and the scientific community again will be able to benefit from his intellect and passion.”

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