I suspect that most readers will have heard the news that Charles Lieber, nanoscale materials chemist and chair of Harvard’s chemistry department, was arrested yesterday by federal agents. He was accused of providing false statements to government agencies about his involvement with China’s “Thousand Talents” program and with the Wuhan University of Technology (no connection to the coronavirus story!)
Here’s an affidavit in support of the federal complaint. It’s pretty strong stuff. Prof. Lieber, it says, had been working with WUT since 2011 and had received substantial funding: the equivalent of $1.5 million to set up a lab in Wuhan, $150,000 per year in “living expenses”, and up to $50,000 a month (!) in salary, prorated according to his “actual work time” in or for Wuhan. One wonders, as an aside, how much of this income ever found its way onto Prof. Lieber’s federal income tax forms. The affidavit contains detailed direct quotes from emails between Lieber and various officials at WUT, copies of his contracts, a timeline of his travels to Wuhan, discussions about modes of payment, and so on, and the evidence seems to be extremely hard to refute.
It seems equally hard to refute that he was trying to cover up many of these details. The IRS aside, such funding arrangements have to be reported on various conflict of interest forms to university employers, granting agencies and so on. The affidavit also includes correspondence with people at Harvard when they learned that Lieber had set up the “WUT-Harvard Joint Nano Key Laboratory” without their knowledge. They do not seem to have been pleased with the use of the Harvard name, and Lieber is shown writing to WUT to tell them to take it off. There are also details of an interview that Department of Defense granting agency officials conducted with Lieber in 2018 where he was specifically asked about any participation with China’s Thousand Talents program, and he stated that he had never been asked to participate. That does not look good next to the copy of his 2011 contract, which includes the phrase “One Thousand Talent High Level Foreign Expert” in its title. Lieber was also interviewed by people at Harvard about his foreign collaborations and funding in 2018, and the affidavit says that he caused the university to make materially false statements to the NIH, telling them that he had no formal association with WUT after 2012 and that he had no connection with the Thousand Talents plan. Neither do these statements look good when contrasted with emails from WUT as late as 2017 telling him that his salary had just been put on his bank card, etc.
This email of Lieber’s with someone in his Harvard research group, which was sent after his DoD interview, is also going to be a problem. I am not a criminal defense lawyer, but this would seem to speak to “consciousness of guilt”. Recording in an email your intent to withhold information from a federal investigation also does not seem wise:
“Can you also provide me with the link/info to CAS webpage where I am listed as directing (?) that lab at Wuhan? I lost a lot of sleep worrying about all these things last night and want to start taking steps to correct sooner than later. I will be careful what I discuss with Harvard University and none of this will be shared with government investigators at this time.”
No, if the evidence in the FBI affidavit is presented accurately – and its breadth and detail does not leave much room for doubt – Prof. Lieber is in a great deal of trouble and he will face serious difficulties in defending his prior statements. This accounts for why he was denied bail (as a flight risk) and as I write remains in federal custody. I am having difficulty picturing the reaction in the Harvard administrative offices to the news that the chair of their chemistry department was being hauled off by the FBI.
What, then, is the Thousand Talents program? This was established by the Chinese government in 2008, and it has several divisions for both Chinese researchers and foreign experts. The general idea is to recruit scientific talent and expertise to China – encouraging Chinese nationals to come back to Chinese institutions after studying overseas, funding research collaborations between Chinese groups and institutions and foreign researchers, and so on. Thousands of people have been involved as recipients of awards under the program, including many prominent Western scientists. As with any big government program anywhere, there have been criticisms that a good part of this money has been wasted. Some of the foreign collaborations would seem to be window dressing, and some of the Chinese nationals seem to be reluctant to give up their positions outside China and would rather fly in once in a while and do the minimum needed to retain their awards.
There have also been concerns about outright espionage. Here’s a recent Senate report calling the Thousand Talents effort (and the many other Chinese-sponsored recruitment programs) a direct threat to US security. There have been cases of awardees taking proprietary information with them, of nondisclosure of Chinese funding (as with Prof. Lieber), and so on. In recent years, the Chinese government has reacted to this scrutiny by removing the names of awardees from public web sites in an effort to keep them from becoming targets of investigation by the FBI and other agencies (in the US and other countries). This is quite a mess, because the Chinese government is certainly within its rights to encourage its own nationals to return to do research in China, and to encourage collaboration with foreign research groups. But at the same time, China does not have an encouraging record when it comes to aggressively pursuing its national interests by gaining access to foreign technology through whatever means come to hand. Meanwhile, a great strength of the US research system has been its ability to attract scientific talent from all over the world, and we would be foolish to do things to jeopardize that.
It’s a gigantic grey area. But when you see a prominent US academic (such as the chair of Harvard’s chemistry department) taking steps to conceal Chinese funding connections, it does not give you happy feelings about the situation. If there’s nothing wrong going on, why are people acting as if there is? Setting up foreign research collaborations should not involve shoveling such piles of cash as to make its recipients feel as if they have to conceal it. Right?