The chairman of Harvard’s chemistry department and one of its medical research students have been arrested over their alleged involvement in a plot by Beijing to steal information from American universities.
Charles Lieber, an acclaimed chemist and pioneer in nanotechnology, is due in court in Boston today, charged with lying to the US Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health about links to a Chinese university.
He faces up to five years in prison if convicted. In court papers he is accused of accepting payments of up to $50,000 a month from Wuhan University of Technology and of serving as a “strategic scientist” in China’s Thousand Talents Plan, a programme to recruit overseas researchers.
Robert Plumb, an FBI agent, said that the Chinese initiative was designed to encourage American academics “to transmit the knowledge and research they gain here to China”. In an affidavit filed with the court, he said that the talent programmes “have rewarded individuals for stealing proprietary information and violating export controls”.
In a separate case, Zaosong Zheng, 30, is accused of stealing research specimens from Harvard Medical School and hiding them in a sock in his luggage as he tried to fly back to China. The student has been charged with smuggling and faces up to ten years in jail.
A second Chinese national, Yanqing Ye, 29 — who was studying at Boston University’s department of physics, chemistry and biomedical engineering — has been charged with lying on a visa application by failing to state that she was a lieutenant in the People’s Liberation Army. She is said to be in China.
It was the arrest of Dr Lieber, 60, an award-winning professor, that shocked the scientific community. It is not illegal for academics to accept foreign funding, but those who also receive grants from the US government are required to disclose any foreign contracts and connections.
Dr Lieber’s laboratory declares that it is sponsored by the Office of Naval Research and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Prosecutors say it has received more than $15 million in federal funding since 2008.
Mr Plumb said Dr Lieber had travelled to Wuhan University of Technology in 2011, where he had agreed to sign a five-year contract as a “strategic scientist” at the university.
In emails cited in court documents, he wrote of building up a “joint laboratory” and discussed receiving half of his salary in cash, “with the remainder deposited into the bank account (in China) that was set up.”
When Harvard administrators noticed a website for the “WUT-Harvard Joint Nano Key Laboratory” in China, they confronted Dr Lieber, who wrote to a professor there saying that the agreement with him “does not constitute an agreement with Harvard University”, according to court papers.
Mr Plumb said it appeared that Dr Lieber was still drawing a salary in 2017 and may have executed a new agreement with the university.
When questioned by investigators in 2018, Dr Lieber allegedly told them that he had never been asked to participate in the Thousand Talents Plan.
Dr Lieber’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment yesterday.