by Joe Nino - January 29, 2020
On Tuesday, January 28, 2020, the New York Times reported that F.B,I. agents arrested Charles M. Lieber, the chair of Harvard’s department of chemistry and chemical biology, for making a false statement to federal authorities about his financial connections to the Chinese government and his involvement in the Thousand Talents program, a campaign used to draw foreign-educated scientists to China.
This arrest marked a new phase where the Justice Department is ramping up its campaign to smoke out scientists who steal research from American laboratories.
In the past few months, news about scientists being prosecuted, above all, Chinese graduate students and researchers working in American laboratories, has been on the uptick.
The Lieber arrest does mark a significant turn of events, since he is a renowned researcher that has moved into the highest echelons of his academic field. Lieber is a leader in the area of nanoscale electronics.
Dr. Lieber’s lawyer, Peter Levitt, offered no remarks after a preliminary hearing in federal court in Boston on Tuesday.
His arrest surprised many individuals in research circles.
“This is a very, very highly esteemed, highly regarded investigator working at Harvard, a major U.S. institution, at the highest rank he could have, so, all the success you can have in this sphere,” declared Dr. Ross McKinney Jr., chief scientific officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges. “It’s like, when you’ve got it all, why do you want more?”
“We worry that, slowly but surely, we’re going to have something of a McCarthyish purity testing,” he continued. “He’s being criminally charged. This is a big deal. He could end up in jail.”
Lieber was charged with one count of making a false or misleading statement, which generally involves a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
Harvard stated that Dr. Lieber was placed on indefinite administrative leave.
“The charges brought by the U.S. government against Professor Lieber are extremely serious,” said Jonathan Swain, a spokesman for Harvard. “Harvard is cooperating with federal authorities, including the National Institutes of Health, and is initiating its own review of the alleged misconduct.”
Dr. Lieber was one of three scientists to be charged with crimes that very day.
Zaosong Zheng, a cancer researcher affiliated with Harvard was caught leaving the country with 21 vials of cells stolen from a laboratory at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston, according to a report from the authorities. Authorities claimed that he confessed to planning to jumpstart his career by publishing the research in China under his name. The Chinese national was charged with smuggling goods from the United States and with making false statements.
The third individual charged was Yanqing Ye, who had been carrying out research at Boston University’s department of physics, chemistry and biomedical engineering until last spring. At that time, she ended up returning to China. Prosecutors said she concealed the fact that she was an officer in the People’s Liberation Army. Regardless, she continued to complete military assignments under the order of PLA officers while doing work at B.U.
Yanqing was hit with charges of visa fraud, making false statements, acting as an agent of a foreign government, and conspiracy. She is currently in China and was not arrested.
Prosecutors highlighted that the charges announced on Tuesday were part of a comprehensive crackdown on researchers affiliated with the Chinese government.
“No country poses a greater, more severe or long-term threat to our national security and economic prosperity than China,” declared Joseph Bonavolonta, the special agent heading the F.B.I.’s Boston field office. “China’s communist government’s goal, simply put, is to replace the U.S. as the world superpower, and they are breaking the law to get there.”
The charging documents in this case detail Dr. Lieber’s extensive ties to China, and his attempts to keep them away from his American employers.
According to the court document, Lieber signed an agreement in 2011 to become a “strategic scientist” at Wuhan University of Technology in China, which came with a $50,000 monthly salary, $150,000 in annual in living expenses, and more than $1.5 million allocated for a second laboratory in Wuhan.
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