Harvard Professor Indicted Over Failure to Disclose Research Ties to China

Legal

A Harvard professor arrested earlier this year for failing to disclose ties to China’s Thousand Talents Program was indicted Tuesday for making false statements to federal authorities regarding that work in Wuhan, China.

Charles Lieber, the former chair of Harvard University’s Chemical Biology Department, was indicted by a federal grand jury this week on two counts of making false statements. He had been arrested in January for his failure to disclose financial ties with China while receiving grant funding from the U.S. government. If found guilty, Lieber could serve up to five years in prison and be fined $250,000, the Department of Justice said.  Lieber is scheduled to be arraigned in federal court at a later date, the government added.

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Lieber has served as the principal investigator in a research group at Harvard University since 2008 and during that time has received more than $15 million in research funding from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Defense. When applying for these grants, the government requires the disclosure of all sources of research support, including financial conflicts of interest and foreign collaboration. The government said Lieber failed to disclose his ties to the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) and was also a participant in China’s Thousand Talents Plan, a Chinese government program aimed at recruiting western scientists to further China’s own scientific development programs. The Thousand Talents Plan in China provides funding for scientists willing to conduct scientific research on behalf of the Chinese government. The U.S. government has alleged that the Chinese program is not only a way for that country to prosper off of U.S.-based research but also as a means to steal proprietary information. Lieber was associated with that program from 2012 to 2015, the government said.

Over the past several years, the government has been closely monitoring researchers with financial ties to China. A 2017 report issued by the FBI noted that that intellectual-property theft by China costs the U.S. as much as $600 billion annually. Last year, the Chinese government tamped down the promotion of the Thousand Talents plan as western fears mounted over concerns of intellectual property theft.

According to the government indictment, Lieber received a salary of $50,000 per month from WUT, as well as living expenses valued at $158,000. 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.

The indictment shows that Lieber never disclosed those ties to the government when making his grant requests. Also, the government said in 2018, Lieber lied during an interview with federal investigators about the extent of his involvement with China. The government said Lieber said he was never asked to participate in the Thousand Talents Program, but was not sure how that government classified his role. His denial of his involvement caused Harvard to make false claims to the federal government, the DOJ said in its announcement.

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