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Chemistry Chair Arrested on Federal Charges

2020 in Review: Renowned Harvard Scientist Charged With Lying About Chinese Funding

Former Harvard Chemistry chair Charles M. Lieber leaves federal court after a bail hearing in January.
Former Harvard Chemistry chair Charles M. Lieber leaves federal court after a bail hearing in January. By Camille G. Caldera
By Simon J. Levien, Crimson Staff Writer

This story is part of The Crimson's Ten Stories That Shaped 2020 series. To view other parts, click here.

Harvard Chemistry chair Charles M. Lieber — a University Professor renowned for his contributions to nanotechnology — was charged in federal court in January for failing to disclose funding from the Chinese government.

Lieber allegedly made false statements to government investigators for the National Institutes of Health and Department of Defense about his participation in China’s Thousand Talents Plan.

The TTP, established by the Chinese government in 2008, seeks to attract researchers across the world to China. The U.S. government has deemed the program a national security risk. Despite having signed a TTP contract in 2012, Lieber told authorities he was unaware of being in the program, according to an affidavit. He also emailed a colleague that he would withhold information about his research in China from investigators and Harvard.

The affidavit alleges Lieber joined Beijing-sponsored research programs at Wuhan University of Technology in 2011 while receiving millions of cash and contributions to his Chinese bank account. It also alleges that Lieber misled Harvard to tell the NIH he had no TTP ties.

Harvard placed Lieber on indefinite paid leave the day he was arrested. In June, a grand jury indicted him on two counts of lying to investigators. By mid-summer, Lieber was indicted on four additional counts for failing to report taxable income from his Chinese research.

Lieber has pleaded not guilty to all charges, and indicated he plans to fight the charges to trial. In the fall, Lieber sued Harvard, arguing the University should cover his legal fees. University lawyers argued he relinquished his right to indemnification when he knowingly lied about his relationship with China.

Lieber’s arrest was the latest in a crackdown by the federal government and American universities on “academic espionage,” wherein scientists pass academic research at U.S. universities to foreign governments. In January, a Chinese national was arrested as he attempted to smuggle cancer research from Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center to China; he pleaded guilty in December.

Last year, Harvard formed new oversight committees in response to the NIH’s call to investigate intellectual property theft, primarily from China. The University, which boasts strong ties to China and troves of yearly federal funding, continues to walk a thin line as national security concerns have endangered global academic collaboration.

—Staff writer Simon J. Levien can be reached at simon.levien@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @simonjlevien.

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