Tuesday, January 28, 2020

BREAKING: Harvard chemistry chair charged with lying to US government re: Chinese academic funding

BOSTON — Charles M. Lieber, the chair of Harvard’s department of chemistry and chemical biology, was charged on Tuesday with making false statements about money he had received from a Chinese government-run program, part of a broad-ranging F.B.I. effort to root out scientists suspected of stealing biomedical research from American laboratories. 
Dr. Lieber, a leader in the field of nanoscale electronics, was one of three Boston-area scientists accused on Tuesday of working on behalf of China. His case involves work with the Thousand Talents Program, a state-run program that seeks to draw talent educated in other countries... 
...Federal prosecutors said on Tuesday that Dr. Lieber made false representation to questions about his participation in the Chinese program to the United States Department of Defense. He is also charged with misrepresenting his involvement in Thousand Talents and his affiliation with Wuhan University of Technology to officials at the National Institutes of Health. 
According to charging documents, Dr. Lieber was paid up to $50,000 per month in salary and $150,000 per year in living expenses by Wuhan University of Technology. He was also awarded more than $1.5 million by the university and the Chinese government to build a laboratory in Wuhan. 
Researchers are legally obligated to disclose such payments  to their academic institutions. 
A representative for Dr. Lieber could not immediately be reached for comment....
NBC indicates this is the shakeout from a Boston-wide investigation, including a PLA lieutenant who was studying at Boston University. Here are details from NYT on that:
...Yanqing Ye, a physicist who had been studying at Boston University until last spring, was also charged on Tuesday, accused of lying to authorities about her status as a lieutenant in the People’s Liberation Army. Ms. Ye, who was charged with visa fraud, making false statements, acting as an agent of a foreign government and conspiracy, is in China and was not be arrested...
This is moving a bit fast for me to understand what is happening, but here are my priors:
  • I do believe it is clear that there is a Chinese government-wide priority to use whatever means available to obtain economically- and militarily-important scientific and engineering IP from the US. 
  • I am very skeptical as to the FBI's ability to distinguish between scientists who were stupid (i.e. broke laws accidentally) and those who were evil (those who intended to break laws and transfer science/technology illegally.) 
    • I believed this before the current Administration, I note
  • I suspect that this effort on the part of the FBI will be broadly unproductive for everyone involved. 
So, those are my priors. We'll see how this goes. Updates as news becomes available. Looks like Harvard is cutting ties quick - their statement, via NBC: 
"The charges brought by the U.S. government against Professor Lieber are extremely serious," Harvard said in a statement. "Harvard is cooperating with federal authorities, including the National Institutes of Health, and is initiating its own review of the alleged misconduct." 
The university added that Lieber has been put on "indefinite administrative leave."

UPDATE 1:48 PM: The Justice Department press release, and the actual indictment. After reading the indictment, it sure seems like the FBI has Professor Lieber dead to rights on lying to the FBI agents who visited him.

CJ's advice: Don't talk to the cops. If you must talk to the cops, don't lie. (Also, don't talk to the cops without a lawyer. But better yet, don't talk to the cops.)


  1. If you go to his labs website, it looks like a certain part of the world is well represented in his grad students/post docs.

    I found entertaining the PLA was giving him $200,000 a year. I guess he wasnt satisfied with his Harvard salary, which Im guessing was approaching 1/2 million a year....

  2. $750,000 per year from the Chinese government with the requirement of 9 months of work per year for them! The money must be nice, but hmm, now do you square that with the salary time contributions written into $15M in federal grants besides lying?

    I can't really fault him for wanting a lab in China, the additional research that goes along with it, and the cash, but sheesh! Not reporting it on CoI and then lying to the FBI? For a harvard professor, how dumb can you get? He probably could've still pulled down an extra quarter million a year without getting into trouble. I don't think the extra few million was worth it...

    1. We still do not know if we hit the bottom of this unfolding scandal? Feds must start to look for those Chinese professors who while being employed here in the US, and funded by NIH, NSF do their sabbaticals in China! True, and this does not look good. Sadly, the coterie who have tremendous leverage with the funding agencies and scientific body dial out others but include their own ilks. I am in academia and is rampant. I may not agree with our President on many issues but when he takes China to task including pilfering ideas, respecting IP right etc., I am with him all the way. We are being taken for a sucker!

  3. CRAZY. The greed required to jeopardize a tenured position at Harvard is difficult to fathom.

  4. It looks like Professor Lieber missed the civics lesson on "Never Talk to the Police" (aka, 5th Amendment):


    The presentation is a professor in a law school class. The first 25 minutes is the most important. The second half is a police detective telling the law school class that Duane is absolutely correct.

  5. So, is the American university a place where knowledge is created and freely disseminated, supported by State money in order to hopefully get an economic benefit further down the road from public research, or is it a tool for the furtherance of the interests of the State first, and everything else second?

    I know there are a lot of small nuances, but it's basically that fundamental question and the FBI thinks it's the second while I always thought it was the first.

    Personally hard to feel sorry for Lieber for many different reasons, but lying to the FBI is the least of them. I don't think he really knows as much as his grad students, and the money he got was obscene and could have been better used elsewhere to further science. The Chinese officials who organized all this were getting fleeced because they were just paying for a name, but they knew it. If anything they and Lieber should be arrested for misuse of research funds on vanity instead of real science. However, fundamentally, for me this is a very worrying case based on the fact that public research done at a university should be widely available. None of this 'passing on potential IP to China' bullshit. You should be happy that the research leads to results that improve everyone's lives. If the Chinese cure a type of cancer with Lieber's with American research money, I'm all for it. If their army lieutenant studies at a public university, it should be perfectly fine. Do your military research somewhere else. Civilian research should be fair game in a sane society.

    1. I don't think your two options for public research are mutually exclusive. Public research is publicly supported to hopefully get some major societal benefit down the road. However, since the United States taxpayers pay for public research, they are the priority society in receiving any benefits that arise. It's okay if the United States invents some incredible new nanotechnology and eventually China gets its hands on it through appropriate channels, but to take publicly funded results and have a direct and secret back channel to China is unacceptable. Part of the societal benefit of public research is that it generates intellectual property that helps create new startups and job opportunities which would not happen if other countries siphon the intellectual property and are first to market with cheaper labor, fewer restrictions, etc.

    2. The part about generating intellectual property is fairly new to the university, although I suppose it might be older than I am. The university is meant as a place for basic research and the quest for trying to commercialize it is probably part of what caused this current problem with Lieber. In truth, even intellectual property discovered in Harvard is not a serious contender in the market until lots of company research is done, and you can't stop any Chinese postdocs who worked on it from going home and starting their own business. But okay, let's pretend that universities magically create crazy value with their Harvard patents.

      Like Chemjobber points out in the post, there are serious problems with this indictment, and it seems there is a heavy dose of politicization in it. Lieber was now getting probably just as much money from the Chinese taxpayer and if he had a lab there as well, then is it not his duty for the Chinese taxpayer to be first in line if they paid him more? This has nothing to do with any taxpayers and trade secrets in reality. It's just a way for them to slow down Chinese progress in technology because they think stopping scientific collaboration will make China 2025 not a thing and they'll fold. If they really cared about the American taxpayer being ripped off, then they would come down on the South Korean and Saudi Arabian new mega institutes doing the same thing. But those two are allies and have no hope of replacing the US as the number one economy in the world.

      In reality, arresting Lieber will probably not do much since I doubt he was of much practical benefit. Although, I suppose some students who were foolish enough to want to be in his mega-lab under him in China will want to go somewhere else, but this will be offset by the Chinese students who will feel scared in the US that the FBI will get them if they keep talking to their families and going to see them, so they will move back to China permanently after graduation. It might actually help the Chinese taxpayer since they won't waste this money on vanity projects like this, and will hopefully hire 7 decent enough professors and fund their groups instead.

  6. I've never been used to "Don't talk the the police", but I've had "Don't lie to the Feds" as a good rule to follow. If you have to lie about something to others, chances are your motives aren't good to start with. I assume that the rule is based on that eventually under some sort of questioning, you'll say something wrong, and that maybe the questioners will use that as a prybar to go after everything else you might have done, but I haven't been around police so much and have more trust.

    I wonder if Lieber isn't getting harshed to prove "No, we're not just going after Chinese people" which probably isn't going to work, either.

    1. I'm certainly not anti-police, but one reason not to talk is that you can be induced to make a false confession. It sounds crazy, but it happens, and is a problem that should be talked about more. Some of the tactics used by police in the US are not allowed in other countries (and I'm not referring to physical coercion).

    2. Hap: I used to believe as you. Watch the first 20 min of the video at your leisure and you may change your opinion on that.

    3. I wonder if he was arrogant and thought he could outsmart the cops. Anyone who attempts to do this usually gets trapped in a lie. He very likely is smarter than the cops, but they have a lot more experience with interrogations than he does.

      Anon 1:52 is right - they'll make a suspect think his only chance to avoid a life sentence is to confess to a crime he didn't commit. If he's panicking and not thinking straight, he just might do it.