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Harvard’s Chemistry Dept. Chairman in FBI Custody

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?

127 comments on “Harvard’s Chemistry Dept. Chairman in FBI Custody”

  1. Barry says:

    Even if all the allegations prove true, the circus arrest w/ manacles is unjustified. It smacks of some police officer acting out his/her reality-show fantasy of class-warfare against the Harvard elite.

    1. Lawrence says:

      “Even if all the allegations prove true, the circus arrest w/ manacles is unjustified. It smacks of some police officer acting out his/her reality-show fantasy of class-warfare against the Harvard elite.”

      You are really reading into this one. It is pretty typical to be handcuffed when you are arrested. I think *not* handcuffing a suspect because they hold some position of power, or are wealthy, would smack of something far worse than a police officer performing a routine arrest.

    2. loupgarous says:

      That’s how the FBI rolls with people who lie to them. Just ask Martha Stewart, LTG Mike Flynn, Roger Simon… people who even chiseled on the truth a little when talking to the Feds (if you’re high-up in the FBI, though, you can tell bigger lies to the FBI without being perp-walked in front of the press).

      This guy didn’t just chisel on the truth, he’s reported to have flat-out denied taking money from what appears to be a front for Chinese intelligence to the tune of $150,000 /year for “living expenses”, $50,000/month in salary, and $1.5 million in research funding.

      If the bits about this fellow’s evasive behavior to FBI, US grantor agencies and Harvard are true, it seems to be enough to convince a Federal grand jury that the guy needs to be tried for the same things General Flynn was – at the very least.

      If these allegations are correct, the perp walk of shame is
      (a) something people who’ve been accused of much less have had to endure, and
      (b) the very least of this guy’s problems.

      This isn’t someone being persecuted for exercising freedom of academic inquiry or sharing unclassified information with other researchers. The guy accepted research funding from the US National Institutes of Health, US Office of Naval Research, and Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Reportedly, he has also taken millions from a foreign government which is a military adversary of the US for research without admitting it to NIH or the DOD when asked.

      A court of law should rule whether that’s espionage or just lying to the Federal Government. But the publicity surrounding Lieber’s arrest serves a useful purpose – public notice to other US government-funded researchers that that taking Chinese money at the same time will not end well for them.

      It’s not a circus arrest if the affidavit is accurate about Lieber simultaneously taking DoD money for nanotechnology/nanoscience research and being paid to do the same research for China.

      1. Peter O. says:

        uncovering these activities is spreading like a like fire. there is an investigation involving 100 scientist at Texas A& M and last Summer Weihong Tan of the University of Florida abruptly submitted his resignation and left more than 20 grad students. There is an ongoing investigation in the Florida house
        Just follow the money

      2. bob c says:

        not a crime to take the money, only crime would be lying about it

      3. Michael B. says:

        Yes…ask Hillary.

      4. D. D. says:

        Let’s ask ‘ The Dersh ‘ I follow my own gut feelings and I think he sits at the Tippy Top of WHO is the puppet master . Keep your friends close and your enemy’s closer. Then ask him to just write some more book’s ? ‘ BOOK EM ‘

      5. nick says:

        he is not charged with espionage, he is charged with lying (like trump does every hour ) to feds.

    3. USA Bob says:

      Are you completely stupid ??

    4. $$$$$$$$$$ says:

      Leibler also smacks of living out the mad scientist dr.stangeglove fantasy of selling out to foreign power and telling you all to shove it. All of his postdocs were chinese.

    5. Vic Lagina says:

      Roger Stone had masked FBI Agents, armed with Automatic Rifles, storm his home and arrest him in his PJs – from Land AND by Boat! And Mueller called CNN In Advance so that they could be there to Record and Broadcast Stone’s Arrest – for the same thing… smh.

    6. Dorothy Bisson says:

      Well, at least it wasn’t a before dawn raid with swat and guns drawn like it was for Roger Stone.

      1. bob clow says:

        stone threatened death

    7. None says:

      No in this country you have handcuffs put on no matter who you are. You’re an idiot!

    8. Julia says:

      It is now May 5, 2020 and this is being reported as totally inaccurate! Is it? If it’s valid – cool. Regardless, where did journalism cross check FACTS and credible references?

    1. harvard graduate says:

      RBW’s opinions are not relevant anymore.

      1. Nick K says:

        Neither are yours.

        1. harvard graduate says:

          Neither are yours.

          1. Engaging Discourse says:

            no u.

      2. The Grim Reaper says:

        I don’t recall RB being called hauled out of Converse with or without cuffs.

    2. Regularguy says:

      Your linked blog seems vaguely racist

      1. Hap MD says:

        perhaps you mean micro racist? Have you invented a “racist scale”? What kind of comment is this , anyway?

        1. l says:


      2. none says:

        Nothing new for the Luysii blog.

        It is linked here incessantly and the writing is always borderline schizophrenic. The only common thread is that the author manages to mention his pedigree in every post.

        1. Thus-Is-A-Surprise says:

          Perhaps he’s hanging out on ITP waiting for news on a cure for the neuroses he apparently suffers from.

        2. Anon says:

          You can really see the trend in his posts how he became a typical angry old man as time passed….he is also more religious but that’s not surprising..

          1. Ridi says:

            These are ridiculous comments. Luysii’s blog has more creative ideas than most blogs I read.

          2. loupgarous says:

            When is there an age cut-off on being angry? I read Luysii’s blog and find his thoughts well-considered, except when he warns the reader he’s not channeling Spock, but sharing his opinion with us.

          3. loupgarous says:

            Even when I disagree with luysii, I find he’s put thought into what he says, and given his resume, his thoughts are worth reading. Reading over what I posted before, it was perhaps dismissive of luysii’s blog in a way I didn’t intend it to be.

            The sniping here about luysii consists of ad hominem remarks which don’t even deserve a first reading all the way through. So you disagree with what he writes. If you can’t phrase your rebuttal any better than you have, you’ve lost the contest of ideas.

      3. Jake says:

        Not disagreeing, but be careful of confounding effects from a strong streak of ‘old man yells at cloud’.

    1. paperclip says:

      Moffitt Cancer Center, too. (No arrests, just “resignations.”) I suspect we’re going to see much more of the like down the road, and it won’t be pretty for many institutions.

  2. kwangjwa says:

    Color me completely unsurprised. That dude gave a talk at my university, and he was a complete shithead. He talked shit about his own grad students during the talk, complained multiple times that other people got credit for things that he supposedly did first, and even was rude to our chair when he were giving him the award he was invited for: “you mean the piece of paper?”

  3. Neo says:

    I am surprised he was arrested by FBI for concealing this income. Academics have been paid undeclared consulting fees by pharmaceutical companies and nothing of the sort has occurred (even when they wrote papers supporting clinical trials results by the companies). And I am sure in this forum many will know worse cases that these…

    1. anon says:

      I think there is a big difference for consulting for a pharmaceutical company (where patent protections apply, and therfore correct people profit from ideas, most of the time) and a foreign government that has a reputation for stealing other’s ideas to avoid patent protection to get ahead. I hope this faculty traitor gets serious prison time.

      I think its funny that a culture that often purports itself as superior to others has to get its ideas from other countries (like the US), I guess in part because they cannot trust their own science. (ie, What a dysfunctional system.

      1. loupgarous says:

        Victor Davis Hanson’s historical analysis Carnage and Culture shows several outcomes of war between cultures with strong traditions of intellectual freedom and honesty, and those nations which don’ t encourage those things. The countries who design better weapons and where they are procured honestly generally prevail in war over closed societies in which academic freedom and honesty are cardinal values. But there are exceptions – when the technology is either sold by those who created it to their adversaries, or when it’s stolen in one way or another.

        China, unfortunately, has been allowed to take valuable intellectual property from other nations’ firms as a condition of doing business, or just because of lax security. That became a major problem involving space and nuclear weapon technology in the late 1980s-early 1990s, eventually leading to Congressional hearings on the subject in the late 1990s. But it seems that if the US took steps to prevent unwise or illegal technology transfer from hurting its military edge over other countries, they apparently weren’t enough.

        I just hope this affidavit isn’t a case of slamming the barn door very loudly after someone else has quietly led the horses out.

    2. Isidore says:

      It is inaccurate to state that academics have been paid undeclared consulting fees. Companies, at least in the US, cannot get away with slush funds, not these days and not during the past several decades anyway. One can question, often with substantial justification, the ethics of many consulting arrangements, but many of these, which are either borderline of over the line unethical, are not illegal.

    3. Brian says:

      It is one thing to conceal income from the public, quite another to conceal it from the IRS. The fees from pharma are certainly accompanied by yearly 1099s.

    4. Peter S. Shenkin says:

      IRS ≠ FBI

      1. Sisyphus says:

        Unless it’s Lois “Hard drive” Lerner & James “False FISA” Comey.

    5. Fuh Dhge says:

      Given what happened to Jose Baselga at Sloan Kettering, I think that academics not disclosing funds from pharma isn’t tolerated too much anymore

      1. student says:

        He seems to be doing fine as the head of AstraZeneca’s oncology department.

    6. AOM says:

      Ya’ll focusing on lying to the IRS?

      He lied to the DoD! He’s lucky to only have been arrested by the FBI.

    7. Serge Roch says:

      The Nazi regfime wjere operating in these same manners….History repeating itself again….Bravo Mankind!

  4. dearieme says:

    I suspect it would be a healthy trend for the universities to have Heads of Department marched off to prison from time to time. Equality Before The Law is a good thing even if it now seems to be an an antique ambition.

    Naturally if the bloke should happen to be innocent then I hope he sues the FBI for a gazillion because they clearly need to be subjected to the law too.

    1. Bannem says:

      “Il est bon de tuer de temps en temps
      un amiral pour encourager les autres”
      (it is good to shoot an admiral from time to time to encourage the others).—voltaire

      1. 杀鸡儆猴 says:

        There’s a Chinese version of this phrase:

        “Kill the chicken and let the monkeys watch”.

    2. zero says:

      Sure, if we get to include CEOs and LEOs. This strategy of ‘spread the abuse and hope some of it lands on deserving heads’ will surely have no unpleasant side effects.

  5. Adonis Vernalis says:

    It’s OK to recruit foreign talent. Just not from China.

    1. Isidore says:

      Do you really believe that if Prof. Lieber’s alleged financial and other transgressions had occurred in a similar arrangement with another country’s governmental research institution he would have been left alone? This is not about consulting for China, it is about breaking the law in a rather egregious manner, if the allegations are to be believed.

      1. Adonis Vernalis says:

        If that other country were equally aggressive about buying other countries’ talent, than the same statement applies. I cannot help but notice that in many places prominent Chinese faculty have labs sometimes almost completely staffed only with Chinese nationals. Perhaps it is worth occasinally asking the professor why he thinks Americans cannot do science.

        1. juniper says:

          It is true that Chinese faculty often have a disproportionately high number of Chinese lab members, but I don’t think the reason comes down to Chinese faculty thinking American’s can’t do science… after all, they immigrated to the US to do science, and likely have a lot of respect for their American colleagues.

          It is not uncommon for a faculty of a particular nationality to amass lab members of that nation, and the phenomenon is not exclusive to Chinese. I’ve seen the same thing with German, Korean, Indian, and Japanese faculty – and not necessarily in the United States. Finding an academic supervisor who shares your cultural background or language is a strong consideration for immigrants, who often feel isolated and alienated in a new country. I am sure that cultural familiarity and ease of communication also applies to faculty considering candidates to join their labs. It probably goes both ways, as those same faculty may receive less interest from domestic applicants.

          1. Shazbot says:

            I work in a site with four deaf members. The cluster was definately not the result of anything malicious.

          2. Adonis says:

            They may have respect for colleagues, not so sure they have it for American students. Otherwise how do those Chinese students end up in American PhD programs in the first place?

  6. Passerby says:

    Unfortunately the Chinese government have brought this mistrust upon themselves, and it doesn’t help that there are periodic accounts of Chinese nationals trying to steal American IP: along with the news about Lieber, it was also reported that a Chinese researcher at Dana Farber was arrested for trying to transport tubes of research material to China by hiding them in his socks. A Chinese student at Boston University had her visa revoked because she failed to disclose her previous time with the Chinese army. The big challenge is now is to figure out how to stop this behavior without putting too onerous a burden on American professors wanting to collaborate with Chinese professors and Chinese students and researchers wanting to study and work in the US.

    1. loupgarous says:


      “The big challenge is now is to figure out how to stop this behavior without putting too onerous a burden on American professors wanting to collaborate with Chinese professors and Chinese students and researchers wanting to study and work in the US.

      It may be necessary to limit which fields that non-US citizens can work in. We already do that in weapons and nuclear energy-related research.

      Materials science and nanotechnology (Lieber’s specialties as a chemist) are rapidly gaining importance in weapons systems and information processing (thus cryptography). We may have to treat those fields in the same way we now restrict who can and cannot take part in DoD-funded nuclear research or any materials science research important in the design and manufacture of advanced weapons.

      Someone else here observed the US is re-entering a Cold War with China. Unfortunately, we’ve already been in a Cold War with the entire Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (the modern equivalent of the Warsaw Pact) for decades. The SCO’s two largest members, Russia and China are in a close military alliance, and their nuclear arsenals are largely pointed at us and our own allies. It’s only prudent to consider whether we want to keep our technological edge over Russia and China, or forfeit it.

      As I type this, several military aircraft are overflying my home on exercises to keep our armed forces trained in their jobs. They’ve been doing it regularly for several years, now. Only our technological and doctrinal edge over our adversaries deters war with them. Some limitations on who from overseas can work in certain fields may at least maintain the technological edge we need to deter war.

      1. An Old Chemist says:

        At what cost? The joke in Silicon Valley is that if the feds, in the name of protecting intellectual property, deter Chinese researchers from working in the U.S., there won’t be any intellectual property to protect, says Frank Wu, a law professor at U.C. Hastings in San Francisco and president of the Committee of 100. Like the 2004 film “A Day Without a Mexican,” which depicts California’s economy grinding to a halt from the sudden disappearance of Latino workers, a significant brain drain of Chinese experts could decimate many of America’s most celebrated enterprises.

        1. loupgarous says:

          Obviously, we can’t wall all of our national research off for US-citizen STEM workers. We don’t have enough of them. Nor can we throw the doors open for research that impacts our defense capability to anyone.

          This, by the way, isn’t picking on Chinese or any other national or ethnic groups. US citizens from all ethnic backgrounds are as liable to be bought or blackmailed as anyone else. Some of the best bargains the KGB ever got on America’s secrets came from native-born US citizens – people who walked into Soviet embassies with bags of secret documents.

          What we’re doing is a good start; but hard choices need to be made. One hard choice would be tolerating some leakage of technical and scientific information globally. Another would be compartmentalizing defensible technological secrets (recognizing that the Chinese got from fission bombs to air-droppable three-stage thermonuclear weapons in 32 months by themselves, so the radiation pressure concept wasn’t all that defensible). How to do that’s not immediately obvious, but we should try to do it, anyway.

  7. Hap says:

    There’s an awful lot of “without their knowledge” here. I imagine that there’ll be discussions between Prof. Lieber and the Harvard administration after this is all done.

    The amount of money and the effort to hide it make Prof. Lieber’s appointment look like something else that can’t bear scrutiny was happening. Does the FBI think he was an actual espionage asset for China? That would explain the security, though at first glance it seems more likely that the FBI is trying to show how tough they are with the perp walk.

    The Martha Stewart rule (“Don’t lie to the Feds.”) would seem to apply, and perhaps the more expansive “Don’t talk to the police (and if you do, don’t talk to them without a lawyer)” might also apply.

    It shouldn’t be a problem working with China, or setting up a lab there. Hiding and lying about doing so, though, is another kettle of fish. Have collaborations or labs at KAUST or other universities with lots of spending on foreign researchers had these problems?

    1. Isidore says:

      There is probably a lot of truth in the “perp walk” publicity as an effort by the Feds to demonstrate how tough they are even with high profile powerful individuals. You may recall the very public (and widely publicized) arrest in 2011 of the then head of the IMF Dominique Strauss-Kahn for sexual assault of a hotel chambermaid. He was arrested at the JFK airport, led away in handcuffs, and transferred to the Riker’s Island jail, eliciting howls of protest and not just by the French.

      1. Lawrence says:

        Dominique Strauss-Kahn violently assaulted a woman in New York, and was on a plane heading to safety. It would have been absurd to not put him in cuffs and take him out of the airport.

        1. Ellie says:

          Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested for violent sexual assault of a woman in New York City. The charges were dismissed at the request of the prosecution because there was insufficient evidence and the woman acknowledged that she was trying to get money out of Strauss-Kahn. He definitely had problems but being a convicted rapist was not one of them.

  8. Magrinho says:

    To me, this is about greed and the lure of ‘free money’. At the current time, China is an aggressive “buyer” of technology and scientific talent. It’s not OK but it’s nothing new. In other times, it has been other countries.

    Receiving relatively large sums of unregulated money added to your Chinese bank card (many Chinese nationals have these cards which help to move money in and out of China) sounds like a great idea. What could go wrong?

    1. will says:

      Not only receiving money on the bank card, but getting half of it in cash each time he went to China. It sure sounds like Lieber was taking bribes in exchange granting access to Chinese scientists (selected by PLA???) to his lab.

  9. cynical1 says:

    Maybe he can get Dershowitz to be his lawyer…………….

  10. DTX says:

    It’s fascinating how much of what he did is now public. NPR has even posted his application to the 1000 talents program. I wonder if he used a Harvard computer to apply?

    I also wonder what he was supplying that was worth $50k/month + $150k/year? Were his Department of Defense secrets that valuable? What were they? (they’re obviously not secret anymore)

    I’m fine with him being handcuffed. It would also be great if Harvard was forced to pay back the >$8 million in Defense Department research grants and the $10 million in NIH grants that he ran as a Principal ($8 million from DoD for someone working for China???). Then Harvard would have an incentive for stopping illegal activity. Without some kind of penalty, I could see Harvard trying to ignore it. He has been doing this for a long time and it appears Harvard was blissfully unaware.

  11. colintd says:

    When will people learn that it is generally not what you do that gets you into the most trouble, but either lying about it, or not paying your taxes?

    The list of the famous who have fallen foul of this simple piece of guidance is amazingly long.

  12. Bubba Gump, PhD MD says:

    Eighty-five (85%) of his grad and postdoc students are of Chinese descent (American Chinese, Chinese nationals, etc?). If they are mostly Chinese nationals, did his arrangement with China force him to support Chinese nationals over other qualified candidates? What a racket!

    1. An Old Chemist says:

      You are correct on this one. Professor Lieber was obligated to train Chinese students in return for the money which he was being paid under the table:

      Lieber, the government said, was paid $50,000 per month by WUT, and was also provided with living expenses of $158,000 for his role as a “strategic scientist” at the university. In return, Lieber was obligated to work for WUT “not less than nine months a year” by “declaring international cooperation projects, cultivating young teachers and Ph.D. students, organizing international conference[s], applying for patents and publishing articles in the name of” WUT, the government said.

    2. Jake says:

      Naively 85% seems a little high, but what’s the percentage of Chinese (incl. ABC and China nationals) in the department overall, and that 85% “5/6” or something else?

      1. Charles says:

        much much lower than 85%.

        1. Jake says:

          Right, but let’s say it’s 40% and 5/6 students are Chinese, that’s only a p=0.04 which might be enough for some people but not for me.

          1. bernie says:

            It’s been 5/6 for several years however.

      2. Bubba Gump, PhD MD says:

        Look at the graduate and postdoctoral students shown on Leiber’s laboratory page.
        It appears that a little more than 85% are of Chinese heritage.
        I’d imagine that is more than the composition of the department as a whole.

  13. wtf says:

    Arresting Lieber is new McMcarthyism at working.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      McCarthy was making things up. Was this made up?

      1. wtf says:

        The FBI counted Lieber’s funding from 2008 and 2009 to make the number large! Lieber started involving with WUT on 2011.

  14. Eric says:

    Several comments about how the handcuffs were excessive. Do the commenters feel the same way when it’s a black teenage boy in Baltimore getting picked up by the police for drug charges?

    I’m fine with Prof. Lieber getting hauled off in handcuffs. I’d even argue that his actions are more detrimental to society than carrying a few illegal pills in your pocket. I challenge you to think about why one situation bothers you and the other one doesn’t. It seems to me they should either both offend you or neither offend you.

    1. NMH says:

      I’m fine with him being sent up the river in shackles to the Big House, if he committed espionage. Pretty depressing to hear he favored Chinese nationals in his lab because he was paid off by the Chinese govt (or maybe the PLA). I guess my experience with faculty suggests they have absolutely no sense of nationalism to speak of; as long as the labor is cheap (if international), they will take it.

    2. Isidore says:

      Frankly, my sensibilities were not ruffled at all by seeing professor Lieber in handcuffs; I actually have not seen any photos but I gather this is what occurred. However, handcuffs are typically used at the time of arrest either to prevent a (manifestly or presumed) violent suspect from inflicting injury to the arresting officers or to bystanders or to stop the suspect from attempting to run away. I doubt that Lieber was likely to do either.

      1. KT says:

        If they did the arrest in the usual white-collar-criminal way, i.e. making arrangements through Lieber’s attorney for him to turn himself in, he may have destroyed evidence once he was tipped off that an arrest was coming. I wonder if the real intention of the perp walk style arrest was to enable a search warrant to be executed immediately on his office, home, computers, etc.

  15. DV Henkel-Wallace says:

    I can’t really complain of Lieber being arrested for committing perjury (false affidavit) and, if it’s the case, concealing significantt taxable income. His mis representations to Harvard are probably not criminal.

    I don’t understand the idea that there is “espionage” going on when you look at not-yet-bit-intended-to-be-published academic research. Science is science and what scientists do (in part) is talk about their work! The perception that other countries are “rivals” in basic research is, IMHO, absurd.

    1. loupgarous says:

      ‘I can’t really complain of Lieber being arrested for committing perjury (false affidavit) and, if it’s the case, concealing significantt taxable income. His mis representations to Harvard are probably not criminal.

      That depends on the terms of his employment at Harvard. Mail fraud might come into play there if he told Harvard he had no conflicts of interest (I assume that question gets asked regularly).

      I don’t understand the idea that there is “espionage” going on when you look at not-yet-bit-intended-to-be-published academic research. Science is science and what scientists do (in part) is talk about their work! The perception that other countries are “rivals” in basic research is, IMHO, absurd.

      Perhaps that’s an accurate observation regarding Lieber’s NIH work, but the Department of Defense probably sees the issue differently.

      If nothing else, what Lieber reported to the ONR and Air Force OSR, even if basic research, probably helped drive policy on which subsequent research to fund, and some of that research could have military implications.

      The Chinese got not only the time and talent of Harvard’s head of the Department of Chemistry for nine months a year at the lab he set up for them in Wuhan, but potentially crucial insight into what research the US DoD was paying for, based on what they’d already paid Lieber for.

      The DoD could essentially have been in the bad position of having a researcher sell knowledge they’d paid for to a “near peer adversary”. Lieber made lucrative deals with China and didn’t tell his college or his US Government grantor agencies. Even if no actual espionage was conducted, Lieber’s deal with China created the circumstances for it to happen quietly and seamlessly.

  16. 2019-nCoV says:

    bad timing for Professor Lieber to seek asylum in Wuhan

  17. Anon2334 says:

    In the grand scheme of things, lying to a government agent, absent any other genuinely immoral behavior, doesn’t really rise to the level of a scientific felony. There’s no suggestion in these charges that anyone has been harmed or that any of Lieber’s substantial scientific achievements are in any way fraudulent.

    One could reasonably claim that Lieber is a Kobe Bryant among 21st-century chemists and that if Bryant can be forgiven his genuine sins, then maybe Lieber should be cut some slack too.

    Maybe all of this is the result of a disgruntled competitor who wants Lieber locked away in the Big House during this year’s giant pumpkin contest.

    1. Jake says:

      it might not be at the level of ‘a scientific felony’, but it’s the regular FBI coming after him and not the scientific FBI.

    2. loupgarous says:

      My experience with department heads is that their intelligence follows a Gaussian curve.

    3. loupgarous says:

      “In the grand scheme of things, lying to a government agent, absent any other genuinely immoral behavior, doesn’t really rise to the level of a scientific felony. There’s no suggestion in these charges that anyone has been harmed or that any of Lieber’s substantial scientific achievements are in any way fraudulent.”.

      “Scientific felonies” aren’t the issue with Lieber. Being honest with his institutional funders, which include the NIH and two DoD research agencies is. Grant applications warn applicants that lies can and will be prosecuted.

      How long would Lieber’s grants have lasted once he told his three grantor agencies “Oh, by the way, the Chinese gave me a million five to set a lab up over there, $150K a year for living expenses, AND are paying me $50K a month.”? The man reportedly Emailed a friend about his intention to hide the Chinese money.

    4. Frustrated honest scientist says:

      Lying about additional funding from other sources on grant applications DOES harm science. It creates unreasonable expectations for what can be accomplished with a “standard” grant, thus making it harder for honest scientists to “look productive” and stay funded themselves. It is demoralizing to feel repeatedly held up to the unmatchable standards of those who are gaming the system.
      As for collaborations … those are almost always win-win for both countries when basic science is involved. The stickiness and slippery slopes, even within a university, start popping up when what was “academic” becomes proprietary and commercialized.

      1. loupgarous says:

        “As for collaborations … those are almost always win-win for both countries when basic science is involved. The stickiness and slippery slopes, even within a university, start popping up when what was “academic” becomes proprietary and commercialized.”

        …or is “born secret”, as nuclear energy-related information was in the United States under the Atomic Energy Act of 1946. Congress had to amend that law in 1954 to allow such information to be declassified. The role of radiation pressure in thermonuclear fusion is an example of “born secret” information declassified to allow “win-win” international collaboration on controlled thermonuclear fusion.

        An interesting question comes up: what about new scientific knowledge crucial to helping the US deter war with present and future adversaries? How tightly do we wall such information off? Some nanotechnology might fall into that category, which is what got my attention about the Lieber case.

  18. PostDoc says:

    I honestly can’t believe there are people in here defending him. I guess that just shows how many people blindly idolize these big shots.

    1. permadoc says:

      My guess the people who are defending them are other tenured faculty. Tenured faculty tend to be very liberal open borders, technology can go anywhere types. No sense of nationalism. Im sure I would have the attitude as well if I had a job I could never lose, and I didnt have to compete against cheap immigrant labor.

      1. Aaron Hill says:

        Permadoc, You’re right on point with your post

        1. Anon4 says:

          Strong agree with both Postdoc and permadoc.

      2. Anon says:

        Right on the money (pun intended)!

      3. Permadoc says:

        I saw an extreme case about 10 years ago when my advisor wanted to hire someone from Iran, and didn’t even once consider the fact that his stipend was supported by the Iranian government (I work in an immunology lab). He just wanted cheap hands wherever he could get them.

        Could be similar with Lieber: maybe he didn’t care if the students were officers in the PLA, just wanted cheap labor to do research for him.

  19. Another Perspective says:

    I don’t know whether Prof. Lieber had Department of Defense security clearances. If he did, interviews by investigators are standard practice as part of the background investigation process, first to obtain a clearance and thereafter, every five years to maintain the clearance. Dishonesty in filling out the application for a security clearance is viewed as grounds for denial as is lying during the interview.The US Government does not require that people be saints but it does expect honesty when you are questioned by investigators. And honesty is expected when you apply for funding using taxpayer dollars. If all the people who did drugs prior to being employed by the US Government in national security positions were shown the door for their past sins, the hallways at certain agencies would be empty. Honesty about your past is viewed as critical to prevent blackmail and coercion. By not disclosing what the foreign government was providing you, there is risk that your foreign connections could turn up the heat on you. What might initially be viewed as an innocent “hands across the oceans” activity could become more serious as demands are now made for sensitive, even classified information.

  20. mike says:

    Since the USA is likely entering into a new cold war with China, I’d say the arrest was a big shout out to the academic community to get their house in order. The trade war with China is mostly about intellectual property. So academics who sell their NIH or NSF funded research to China or Russia will face increased scrutiny.

    Quite frankly I’m surprised it took so long. I wouldn’t be surprised if whole labs are raided in the future and the PI and his students led away in chains. It had to be Harvard or some other high profile school to make the point stick.

    This is all just the starting. It will only get worse.

  21. x says:

    Can anyone comment on the Canadian investigation about Chinese researchers stealing infectious agents?

    1. curtin says:

      “This is misinformation and there is no factual basis for claims being made on social media,” Eric Morrissette, chief of media relations for Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada said in response to queries by CBC News.

      It may be worth finding a different source of news – ZeroHedge is controversial economics blog run by someone under the pseudonym “Tyler Durden”, known for spinning out conspiracy theories, fear mongering about the apocalypse, and also has been tied to pay-to-deframe and pump-and-dump schemes.

      1. x says:

        I feel that “conspiracy theory” is a disingenuous comment from CBS.

        CBS themselves was running many articles on the subject:
        “Chinese researcher escorted from infectious disease lab amid RCMP investigation”

        “University severs ties with two researchers who were escorted out of National Microbiology Lab”

        Did Xiangguo Qiu steal the coronavirus? Did it get released accidentally? I don’t see any evidence for this.

        I find it credible, that the outbreak happened at the wet market.

        On the other hand, it is also a credible cover up.

        When anthrax leaked from a military lab in the soviet union and tragically caused the deaths of many workers, the Soviet Union claimed that this was caused by tainted meat.
        The tainted meat story was even published in the literature:
        Journal article : Zhurnal Mikrobiologii Epidemiologii i Immunobiologii 1980 No.5 pp.111-113 ref.11

        Abstract : The sporadic cases of human anthrax that occurred in the region were usually preceded by outbreaks of the disease among farm animals. There had been 159 animal outbreaks in 34 districts between 1936 and 1968, involving 371 premises, on 48 of which the disease had occurred on 2-6 occasions. Strains of B. anthracis isolated from meat were identical to strains recovered from human beings. It was important to prevent infected animals from being sent to the abattoir.

        Now we know that the Sverdlovsk anthrax outbreak of 1979 was not caused by tainted meat, but was indeed a biological agent

        This is an interesting inside view from the Soviet program on biological weapons:

        Whatever happened in Canada is very worrisome, even if she did not steal the specific strain of the coronavirus.

        1. curtin says:

          I think you misunderstand, the chief of media relations for Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada, in response to CBC News, asserted that the claims (as in your original link) are baseless. Whether or not CBC News are a reliable source of information I could not say. However, it appears they are reporting on an apparent policy breach at the Winnipeg institution, and fears of intellectual property theft or espionage. I do not see CBC claiming that the coronavirus outbreak has anything to do with that. On the other hand, it is well known that your source (zero hedge) is conspiracy theory material.

          I fail to see how that would be credible. The activities of the researcher mentioned had her removed from her laboratory last year, where she worked on a vaccine unrelated to coronavirus. Why would this explain an unrelated virus has surfacing in a city that she has no apparent ties to, several months later? Ignoring the fact that a very similar virus (SARS) broke out in the same way, under very similar conditions, in recent history.

          1. x says:

            I agree with you.
            Personally I don’t believe it either that she is related to the outbreak (even though it is possible and it would not be the first time that scientific publications are fabricated as a cover up).

            What bothers me about there CBS story (and many other news agencies that carried similar stories), and why I called them disingenuous, is that they they are downplaying a very serious breach (policy or actual materials) at a biological facility that is researching dangerous contagious agents.

            Conspiracy theory or not, the allegations deserve a serious discussion, but sadly the media have taken the stance that “we” need to be worried more about conspiracy theories than the virus or Chinese espionage. This does not help addressing either issue.

            BTW., said website has been frequently spot on for my area of work, so I would not be surprised if there was some some grain of truth to the story.
            Instead of smugly reporting about conspiracy theories, they should investigate what happened at the lab: I would love to know why she was fired, whatever happened, it must have been very serious, given that this is Canada and that even her students were let go.
            Chinese espionage is a serious issue and affects our daily lives (if only in making a decision on whether to hire Chinese students or not). It would be great if CBS would call this out with the same vigor with which they are dismissing conspiracy theories.

  22. #2 says:

    “The general idea is to recruit scientific talent and expertise to China – encouraging Chinese nationals to come back to Chinese institutions after studying overseas”

    “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.”

    Besides financial issues at stake, which are wrong, there is another angle here: the thousands of chemistry-related jobs bled in the last decade.
    It seems a little late to think of our leadership in chemistry, after the blood bath the industry has seen the last decade getting rid of chemists, most in lab roles, but many highly experienced.

    And it seems to be working:

  23. johnnyboy says:

    Beyond the obvious out-of-control greed at play here, what is most shocking to me, for someone who would be considered intellectually at the very top of his field, is the utter stupidity. Lying to Harvard ? Lying to the Feds ? When all the facts are so easy to check ? How much of a complete moron do you have to be to lead a Harvard department ?

    1. fajensen says:

      Yup. Experts in one field often believe that they are automatically experts in Everything they care to try their hands at!

  24. Not Myname says:

    It will be quite interesting to see whether the government’s plan is to scare people with high profile cases — or if they are going to go after everyone who has committed similar offenses.

    As an R1 faculty member, I will tell you this is quite common. Recent Nobel prize winners have labs in other countries (China, Saudia Arabia, etc) that are funded by foreign governments and matched with crazy high stipends.

    It will get messy for many departments if the government decides to go after all offenders (verus making a show of a few high profiles cases to scare everyone into line).

    1. Hap says:

      There’s a lot of the labs in other countries thing – I think the problem is the lying about it and not disclosing the funding and salary arrangements rather than having a lab in other countries.

  25. Anonymous says:

    (So many posts … can only reply generally.) Derek wrote: “This email of Lieber’s with someone in his Harvard research group …” So Lieber is involving subordinates in this coverup? Some students would be sick to their stomachs about that (see various In The Pipelines about grad school pressure, including several cases at Harvard Chem): “If I don’t go along because I have a problem with the request, I’m screwed; if I do go along, I may be screwed by Harvard and law enforcement; if I go outside (ombudsman, whistleblower, etc.) I’m also screwed forever.” How many other PIs teach their students to cut corners or worse in order to assure career advancement or financial gain? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

    I’m not in law enforcement, but I thought that most LE departments have standard procedures to avoid lawsuits: “Everyone is equal before the law.” Anyone placed under arrest is handcuffed (and I think “behind the back” is also SOP in most places), regardless of position or power.

    I also like luysii’s posts and blog.

    Maybe I’ll post more opinions later.

    1. bob clow says:

      he is out on bail, correct your crap

  26. Dr. Nano says:

    #LieberateCharles soon trending on Twitter

  27. loupgarous says:

    National Public Radio interviewed the US Attorney for Massachusetts, who summed the three Boston-area arrests involving Chinese activity among US researchers for NPR:

    “LUCAS: Well, the bigger picture – these cases involve nanotechnology, robotics, chemistry, biomedical research. The U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling said that this is not an accident or coincidence.
    ANDREW LELLING: This is a small sample of China’s ongoing campaign to siphon off American technology and knowhow for Chinese gain.”

    Some details from the interview about the Chinese woman arrested:

    “LUCAS: So these are from the Boston area as well, and they are both against Chinese nationals. And one of them – the case is against a Chinese woman who is conducting research at Boston University. The allegations against her include that she lied on her visa form to hide the fact that she is a Chinese military officer. The feds reviewed her electronic devices and found that she had done research on U.S. military projects and was compiling information on two U.S. scientists who specialized in robotics and computer science.”

    This isn’t just a case where someone had been in the Chinese Army and didn’t mention the fact on her visa application. She is an officer in the Chinese Army who was compiling dossiers on US researchers in robotics and computer science and on US military projects.

    1. Hap says:

      In that case, the Chinese researcher is acting as an intelligence agent for the PLA, while the other was caught trying to commit industrial/academic espionage (don’t know if it was government-sanctioned or not). In both those cases, there’s likely espionage going on. Lieber’s malfeasance seems to be imitating Martha Stewart in the wrong ways. Why lump him in with the others?

      1. loupgarous says:

        Martha Stewart tried to hide information about possible insider trading from the FBI. ImClone wasn’t a near-peer adversary of the US with a massive scientific and technological espionage program. China is. That’s one reason why.

        Giving Lieber credit for enough intelligence to run Harvard’s chemistry program, he accepted $1.5 million in funding for a laboratory in China to do research, which he concealed from Harvard, the NIH, and two DoD research agencies (Office of Naval Research and Air Force Office of Scientific Research).

        Lieber also concealed a very generous “living expenses” payment of $150,000 from China, and up to $50,000/month from China for research work he performed in China. He Emailed an acquaintance about his intention to keep these arrangements a secret from Harvard and those US government grantor agencies. Martha Stewart clumsily tried to conceal paper records from the FBI about her investment in ImClone.

        Martha Stewart’s acts were more limited in their scope and potential that Lieber’s were. She and her subordinates didn’t enjoy a position of trust with Harvard or the US government. Technology transfer to foreign governments wasn’t in the picture for Stewart, no matter how she concealed her investment in ImClone. Lieber concealed the act of accepting all that money from a Chinese entity because he was aware it was wrong on several levels.

        We don’t know Lieber’s motives in taking that money, or China’s motives in paying it to him, but arrangements like that are supposed to be disclosed openly. Everyone else involved with Lieber and his research should be able to make informed decisions on whether or not to trust someone in whom the Chinese had made such a substantive investment. Lieber didn’t allow them to make that risk assessment.
        That’s why I lumped Lieber in with the Chinese malefactors – a court may conclude he was a paid Chinese agent because he tried to conceal the money he took from Chinese sources..

    2. Henry Spencer says:

      Bear in mind that in a free society (unlike, say, China), the government can’t arrest you just because it disapproves of what you’re doing — you must actually break some specific law. It’s not illegal for a foreign military officer to visit the US. Nor is it illegal to collect information about US researchers or US military projects (provided the collecting methods don’t break any laws); scholars and reporters, including foreign ones, do that all the time. By the sounds of it, nothing she was doing was actually illegal, except for that small matter of having lied on her visa application. So yes, it WAS the lie on the application that mattered.

  28. Whitney says:

    There seems to be a lot of exaggerated interpretations of the financial arrangements between Professor Lieber and WUT. A prorated payment of $50,000 per month means that if Professor Lieber took four 7 day trips to WUT in a calendar year, he would get paid $50,000. This is in line with the consulting fee that a top academic would get paid by a major chemical/pharmaceutical company ($1500-2000 per day, as I think Dr. Lowe should know).

    In addition, the contract pays ‘personal benefits’, which can be interpreted as travel (business class), accommodation and meals, four times a year for three years (the length of the contract). I think Dr. Lowe would know that paying travel, accommodation and meals for consultants is also in line with industrial practices. $150,000 over three years is not unreasonable given the travel distance and frequency.

    So if you put the financial issues aside, what is the problem? Well it’s providing false information to the federal government when you are also receiving grant support from the federal government. And for this Professor Lieber is toast.

    The other issue is, if you receive a salary from WUT, how do you get it out of China and into the US (bring out $10,000 in cash each time you visit the country?) without the IRS knowing about it?

    1. loupgarous says:

      #Whitney: On the second point, about bringing in more than $10,000 at a tune, the Chinese periodically load a prepaid bank card with money belove the cut-off amount.

      That way, the law remains unbroken, but China’s research partners and spies get still get paid. This arrangement’s been described in several news stories.

    2. An Old Chemist says:

      It is rumored that legendary Robert Burns Woodward used to get paid $5,000.00 per day for consulting at pharmaceutical companies. It was back in 1970s. I heard this amount, while at Harvard, from my various colleagues.

    3. fajensen says:

      For tax avoidance, it is just rank stupidity and amateur stuff to try to move money ‘without the IRS finding out’. Because they will, and then you’re done. Work within the system, that corporate lobbyists helped creating for this kind of situation, and ‘business’ will go much better!

      The very ‘minimum effort’ is to run the ‘side business’ in a corporation and be totally honest with the paperwork. A good attorney setting up the company and the services of an accountant costs *nothing* compared to the future trouble and tedium he/she relieves one from.

      ‘Getting the money out’ now become ‘corp. sends itemised bill to China for consulting services. China pays’. The travel expenses are now tax deductible. The accountant does all the bookkeeping, reporting, and deals with the IRS for the CEO, who happens to be also the owner and the employee.

      Easy, and Legal.

      Costs are a one-off fee of about 1000 EUR to set up the corporation, 400-600 per year for the accounting. Maybe one will need some professional liability insurance, which is about 400 EUR for 1 million EUR cover. Maybe use a PA-service too for the travel. These expenses are also tax-deductible.

  29. varvar says:


    This report is required by 31 U.S.C. 5316 and Treasury Department regulations
    (31 CFR Chapter X).
    (1) Each person who physically transports, mails, or ships, or causes to be
    physically transported, mailed, or shipped currency or other monetary instruments in an aggregate amount exceeding $10,000 at one time from the United States to any place outside the United States or into the United States from any place outside the United States, and
    (2) Each person who receives in the United States currency or other monetary
    instruments In an aggregate amount exceeding $10,000 at one time which have been transported, mailed, or shipped to the person from any place outside the United States.

    PENALTIES: Civil and criminal penalties, including under certain circumstances a
    fine of not more than $500,000 and Imprisonment of not more than ten years, are
    provided for failure to file a report, filing a report containing a material omission or misstatement, or filing a false or fraudulent report. In addition, the currency or
    monetary instrument may be subject to seizure and forfeiture. See 31 U.S.C.5321
    and 31 CFR 1010.820; 31 U.S.C. 5322 and 31 CFR 1010.840; 31 U.S.C. 5317 and
    31 CFR 1010.830, and U.S.C. 5332.

  30. Charles W Clark says:

    All this energy would be spent more productively after the trial of the case in a court of law. Other recent high-profile cases, alleging illegal scientific collaboration with China, fell apart under close scrutiny, and the accused were not made whole. Let’s let the case be tried. No credit is due to anyone for predicting its outcome based on initial reports in the press.

  31. Sylvain B. says:

    I’ve never understood where the line between Science and Business is placed. However, I prefer to side with Science: it’s a lot more fun.

  32. Andre Brandli says:

    Here an update from Science Magazine:

    U.S. prosecutor leading China probe explains effort that led to charges against Harvard chemist
    By Jeffrey Mervis

  33. DTX says:

    There is an even more intriguing update on Lieber in Science. Notably, with the question: “why he was hired by China to do battery research for electric vehicles when “a search of the titles of Lieber’s more than 400 papers and more than 75 U.S. and Chinese patents reveals no mentions of “battery,” “batteries,” “vehicle,” or “vehicles.” ?” See

    Another Science story on the 1000 Talents program discusses recruiting researchers in the US who failed to disclose their involvement to US granting agencies. It noted that several of 6 fired from from the Moffitt Cancer Center may have been “scamming their Chinese funders by not putting in the time they had promised under their Thousand Talents deals.”

    Scammers scamming those employing them to do potentially illegal work? There is a wonderful irony here.

    To the Moffitt center’s credit, they initiated their own investigation and apparently did so in great detail (Science mentions a 1400 page report)

    1. the big heist says:

      True American Patriots converting dirty communist money into American wealth without lifting a finger for China! They should be given a tax-deductible medal!

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