Harvard’s chemistry chair accused of lying about work for China
US prosecutors have charged the chair of Harvard University’s chemistry department with lying about his ties to a Chinese government programme aimed at collecting foreign scientific research and knowhow.
The arrest of Charles Lieber, 60, a leading American chemist, on Tuesday marks an escalation in the US justice department’s crackdown on alleged Chinese efforts to obtain technology and knowledge from US universities.
Mr Lieber is accused of lying to the Department of Defense about his alleged involvement in China’s “Thousand Talents Plan”, which the US regards as a key part of the Chinese government’s strategy to lure scientists from abroad.
Prosecutors claimed Mr Lieber had been paid $50,000 a month as part of a three-year Thousand Talents contract he signed in 2012 with Wuhan University of Technology, a leading Chinese research institution.
Federal prosecutors in Massachusetts accused him of lying to defence department investigators in 2018 when he allegedly claimed he had never been asked to join the Thousand Talents programme.
Mr Lieber was also accused of causing Harvard University to tell the National Institutes of Health last year that he had “no formal relationship” with Wuhan after 2012.
A public defender assigned to Mr Lieber’s case did not immediately return a request for comment. Mr Lieber is set to appear in court on Tuesday afternoon in Boston.
A spokesman for Harvard University said the charges were “extremely serious” and that Mr Lieber had been placed on indefinite administrative leave.
“Harvard is co-operating with federal authorities, including the National Institutes of Health, and is initiating its own review of the alleged misconduct,” the spokesman said.
The case against Mr Lieber is the most high-profile example so far of the US government’s aggressive response to what it views as Beijing’s underhanded tactics in obtaining cutting-edge technology from overseas.
Though US prosecutors have for years targeted Chinese economic espionage, more recently they have stepped up investigations at US universities, including filing charges against a University of Kansas professor last year in a similar case to Mr Lieber’s.
US officials and lawmakers have become increasingly focused on Chinese research activities. Christopher Wray, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said in April that China had “pioneered a societal approach to stealing innovation any way it can, from a wide array of businesses, universities and organisations”.
The heightened suspicions around researchers with links to China has sparked fears that Chinese-Americans and Chinese nationals are being unfairly singled out.
Last year the chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley warned that “an automatic suspicion of people based on their national origin can lead to terrible injustices”.