Charles Lieber, chair of the department of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University, has been arrested and charged with one count of making a false statement to federal authorities, according to a Department of Justice press release published yesterday (January 28).
“Unbeknownst to Harvard University beginning in 2011, Lieber became a ‘Strategic Scientist’ at Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) in China and was a contractual participant in China’s Thousand Talents Plan from in or about 2012 to 2017,” the justice department statement says. At the same time, he also received funding from US federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Department of Defense, which require researchers to disclose if they receive aid from foreign governments or foreign entities. Lieber did: In connection with the Chinese programs, he received $50,000 USD per month, living expenses of up to 1,000,000 Chinese Yuan (approximately $158,000 USD at the time), and more than $1.5 million to establish a research lab at WUT. Neither Harvard nor the federal agencies were aware of the connection or payments until the NIH started to inquire about Lieber’s ties to China.
The charges are “extremely serious,” Jonathan Swain, a spokesman from Harvard University, tells The New York Times.
In addition to Lieber’s arrest, the justice department also released the names of two other researchers, both Chinese nationals, who had been charged on Tuesday in connection with aiding China.
Yanqing Ye was charged with one count each of visa fraud, making false statements, and acting as an agent of a foreign government and conspiracy. The statement alleges that Ye “lied about her ongoing military service at the National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), a top military academy directed by the CCP [Chinese Communist Party].”
Zaosong Zheng was arrested and charged with stealing 21 vials of cells from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and attempting to smuggle them out of the United States.
The arrests come in the wake of controversy over proposals from the NIH and FBI intended to identify researchers who may have acted against the United States.
“No country poses a greater, more severe or long-term threat to our national security and economic prosperity than China,” FBI special agent Joseph Bonavolonta tells The Times. “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.”
There is a growing sense of anxiety among scientists that they will be subject to increasing scrutiny over international funding, the Times reports. “We worry that, slowly but surely, we’re going to have something of a McCarthyish purity testing,” Ross McKinney Jr. of the Association of American Medical Colleges tells the Times. “[Lieber’s] being criminally charged. This is a big deal. He could end up in jail.”
Amy Schleunes is an intern at The Scientist. Email her at email@example.com.