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Harvard Professor Lieber's Arrest Part of Ongoing Crackdown on Academic Espionage, Experts Say

Charles M. Lieber, Harvard's Chemistry department chair, was recently charged by the federal government for allegedly failing to disclose funding from the Chinese government.
Charles M. Lieber, Harvard's Chemistry department chair, was recently charged by the federal government for allegedly failing to disclose funding from the Chinese government. By Camille G. Caldera
By James S. Bikales and Kevin R. Chen, Crimson Staff Writers

Last week, Charles M. Lieber, an acclaimed nanoscientist and chair of Harvard’s Chemistry department, appeared in handcuffs in federal court, charged with concealing funding from the Chinese government and lying to American agencies about his alleged ties to China’s Thousand Talents Plan.

Lieber’s arrest, however, marked merely the latest development in an ongoing crackdown by the United States government and American universities on “academic espionage,” the process by which scientists pass academic research at American universities to foreign governments.

Experts say the recent federal crackdown on academic espionage — particularly connected to the Chinese government — could have negative effects on collaboration between universities.

The Chinese government established the Thousand Talents Plan in 2008, hoping to attract scholars from across the world to contribute to Chinese development. The U.S. government has since said the program poses a danger to national security.

The FBI and National Institutes of Health have contacted colleges and universities nationwide warning of espionage and intellectual property theft, Dean of Science Christopher W. Stubbs announced at a November meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Harvard formed two new oversight committees this fall in response to those inquiries.

Earlier in January, Customs and Border Patrol agents stopped Zaoseng Zheng, a researcher affiliated with Harvard Medical School, as he attempted to smuggle biological research from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center to China. Zheng was charged in connection to academic espionage alongside Lieber last week.

History professor William C. Kirby — who conducts research on contemporary China — wrote in an email that instances of espionage against the U.S. in decades past may have informed the current federal investigations. Kirby also wrote that a deterioration in U.S.-China relations over the past three years may have prompted the increase in investigations.

Stephanie Segal, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said she hopes the recent federal push will not have the effect of “dividing” the global research community.

“The outcome of this will hopefully not be erecting barriers to scientific collaboration,” Segal said. “Rather, that the integrity of those collaborations and kind of respect for the findings of the research collaboration are ones that the entire global community can benefit from.”

Segal added that China should not be held to a different standard than other countries, but regulators should ensure that research can benefit everyone.

“Foreign research collaboration can benefit the United States,” Segal said. “When there are foreign research collaborations with China, the priority needs to be on making sure that the benefits and the results of that research are ones that are shared broadly across the scientific community.”

Claude E. Barfield, a former consultant to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, used the recent coronavirus epidemic — which originated in China — as an example of a pressing issue that demands the two countries maintain research ties.

“The Chinese scientists are right there on the scene, and the U.S. scientists, we are picking up from the cases here,” Barfield said. “There's some areas that you certainly don't want to cut off scientific collaboration.”

Ross E. McKinney, Jr., the Chief Scientific Officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges, wrote in an emailed statement that U.S. and Chinese researchers have shared a “fruitful and constructive collaboration that has advanced science and discovery.”

McKinney warned that the recent enforcement could spark suspicions about Chinese researchers in American labs.

“The fact that the Chinese government recruited faculty then told them to lie to their US employers and the federal government is problematic because it could raise suspicions about anyone with a collaboration with China, whether warranted or not,” McKinney wrote. “This is not about targeting individuals who are ethnically Chinese — it’s about the systematic actions of a foreign government.”

Several experts said China’s efforts to recruit scholars in other countries are not unusual. Kirby wrote in an email that the efforts are “quite natural.”

“China is investing more than any country in higher education, and as it expands its universities, it seeks talent from all sources,” he wrote. “It is, to be sure, a major effort, but we need to remember that every major research university seeks to recruit the best talent available, and if that talent is elsewhere, to bring them here. Certainly Harvard does that.”

Multiple Thousands Talents members said they did not interact directly with the national Chinese government during their time as members.

Tim Byrnes, an assistant professor of physics at NYU Shanghai and a member of the Thousand Talents program, said the program bears similarities to talent-attracting programs offered in other countries.

“I’m from Australia, which has its sort of equivalent kind of startup grant funded by the government,” Byrnes said. “Unfortunately, it got these connotations of somehow being connected to espionage. From what I can see, it’s really no different to any other types of talent-attracting grant.”

Byrnes said he has never been required to submit information to the Chinese government since he was awarded his grant four years ago.

W. Martin de Jong, a business professor at Erasmus University and former Thousand Talents participant, said he was appointed by the Shanghai government, rather than the national Chinese government, to serve as a part-time professor at Fudan University.

Segal and Barfield both said that, ultimately, they believe universities have the onus to police their own researchers’ connections to China.

“A lot of this is going to get back to the universities, to Harvard in this case — it should know what its scientists are doing and what impact that has, if any, on Harvard's own goals and Harvard's own standards,” Barfield said.

In the wake of Lieber’s arrest, University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain announced Harvard was launching an internal investigation into Lieber’s case, though he declined to specify the scope of the probe.

Segal said that because universities have “pushed back” against heavy-handed enforcement measures taken by the federal government, such as restricting work with specific individuals, academic institutions will bear the responsibility for enforcement.

“There’s a lot more attention being paid as to whether or not the universities are making sure that laboratories and researchers in those laboratories are complying with disclosure policies,” Segal said. “And so inevitably, I think, unless the universities want the government to be taking a much more heavy-handed approach, it's going to fall to the universities to demonstrate compliance.”

—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.

— Staff writer Kevin R. Chen can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @kchenx.

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