On January 28, 2020, US authorities arrested Professor Charles Lieber, a celebrated chemist at Harvard University. Lieber, who is also a pioneer in the field of nanotechnology, has been charged with failing to disclose financial ties to the Chinese government and of lying to US officials.
The US government has concerns about the influence of China’s Thousand Talents Plan, which seeks to recruit experts from around the world to innovate for the country.
Under the current administration, there has been increased focus on reducing the influence of foreign countries on US research.
Who is Charles Lieber?
Since 1991, Professor Lieber has been a faculty member at Harvard, with a focus on chemistry. In addition to being the Chair for the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Lieber is appointed to the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
The work that has drawn Lieber the most recognition, though, is in the field of nanotechnology and the application of nanomaterials. Nanoscience, which plays a role in the other scientific disciplines, is focused on studying and manipulating the minutest matter, such as atoms and molecules.
Lieber’s work in the field has focused on using nanotechnology to merge biology, medicine, and technology with a particular focus on the brain. For his work, Lieber has received dozens of awards from around the world, including, most recently, the 2019 Welch Award in Chemistry, which Lieber shared with a colleague, Dr. Armand Paul Alivisatos.
Charles Lieber’s arrest
Earlier this month, Nature reported on Lieber’s arrest and the shock waves it sent through the science community at Harvard. Former students and colleagues expressed disbelief at the news of Lieber’s arrest, with one person calling him the “purest scientific scholar” she knew.
Lieber was released two days after his arrest after paying a US$1 million bail.
The US government’s case against Lieber alleges that the renowned scientist lied to the US government about where he’d received funding for his research. The Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) is said to have paid Lieber hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from 2012 to 2017, as well as an additional US$1.5 million to set up and operate a lab at the WUT.
This funding was made available through China’s Thousand Talents Plan (TTP, also known as the Thousand Talents Program). According to the charging affidavit, the WUT was paying Lieber to “carry out advanced research and development of nanowire-based lithium ion batteries with high performance for electric vehicles.”
Lieber did not report the funding he’d received from the Chinese program when he applied for funding from both the US Department of Defense (DOD) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH requires applicants to disclose foreign sources of money.
Additionally, the FBI has stated that, when directly asked about receiving funds through the TTP in 2018, Lieber denied having received any such funding.
The US is suspicious of China’s Thousand Talents Plan
In December 2019, Bloomberg reported that the TTP was beginning to worry the US government, as it recruits foreign scientists to work in China. The US fears that this would allow American scientists to replicate their work abroad in Chinese-funded facilities, which the deputy director of the NIH, Michael Lauer, deemed “shadow labs”.
Since the TTP’s launch in 2008, China’s application for patents have dwarfed the US’s, nearly tripling the number. Prior to 2008, the US consistently surpassed China in this metric.
In addition to enabling greater competition for scientific endeavors, US officials fear the program is a means of stealing intellectual property. It could also create opportunities for Chinese espionage, the US suspects, as scientists split time in the two countries.
The NIH crackdown on foreign influence
In October 2019, the NIH made public their investigation into more than 100 instances of foreign influence in US-based scientific research, which deputy director Lauer called “forms of theft.” The agency was said to be investigating at least 180 scientists, most of whom are ethnically Chinese.
The investigation has led to the firing of many scientists, including prominent Asian American researchers. The NIH claims they have also received refunds from scientists who had been given US grants for their research.
The firing of three ethnically Chinese scientists from the Texas-based MD Anderson Cancer Center in April 2019 led to accusations that the NIH crackdown was racist and xenophobic. Lauer has denied there is a racial component to the investigations, insisting “this is not targeting and this is not stigma.”
In November 2019, the Harvard Crimson reported that Harvard had created two separate oversight committees to ferret out “academic espionage” in response to the NIH investigation.
Harvard is among more than 70 US-based research institutes investigating intellectual property theft.