Friday, February 7, 2020

US Attorney in Lieber case speaks out, Chinese 'coopt'-ing US scientists

Science has a news interview with the Massachusetts US attorney who charged Professor Charles Lieber with federal felonies. It is interesting to understand why the Department of Justice is thinking about this:
[US Attorney] Lelling recognizes that international collaboration has helped make U.S. science the envy of the world, and thinks that U.S.-trained scientists should be free to live and work anywhere. But those who decide to mingle their federal funding with support from Chinese institutions are playing a dangerous game, he warns, adding that Lieber is a perfect example. 
“The Chinese government has a very strategic approach to obtaining technology,” Lelling says. “It targets researchers who specialize in areas where the Chinese are deficient, in the hopes that they can piggyback on their expertise to close that strategic gap.” 
“What concerns us … is that a scientist who accepts their support becomes dependent on it to the point where they are willing to accept [an assignment] from the Chinese government or a Chinese university for whatever it is they need. Those of us that work on public corruption cases develop a radar for when person or entity A is attempting to coopt or corrupt person or entity B. And a large enough amount of money can shift loyalties.”
(Incidentally, I found Lelling's indication that "And so, unfortunately, a lot of our targets are going to be Han Chinese" to be pretty chilling. I'd like federal prosecutors to be a little more precise with their language, thank you very much.)

In other Lieber news, another Science article indicates Professor Lieber was working on battery research in Wuhan, which is odd, because that's not the main thrust of his work in the United States. Interesting...

8 comments:

  1. The last line of the Science article reads "Which begs the question of why his supposed collaboration in Wuhan was focused on a line of research outside of his specialty." I don't know Lieber, but it doesn't seem like too much of a stretch for someone of his obvious talent to "change lanes" from microelectronics and biomedical nanotech to batteries. I'd be puzzled if they had hired him to do drug discovery or nuclear physics, but battery research involves a lot of inorganic and physical chemistry, both of which are in his wheelhouse. I'm more concerned about the implicit suggestion that scientists have such narrow areas of specialization that a modest pivot in research direction is somehow surprising. This narrow view of scientific aptitude is why we'll never see another Michael Faraday...

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    1. Lieber's early publications were on solid state physics. He already chanced focus once to biology, there's no reason to believe he couldn't shift field again.

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    2. 1) There are lots of people who can shift fields easily (Whitesides?) but I don't think that's necessarily general, as lots of people overgeneralizing from achievement in one field have illustrated.

      2) This sounds a lot like previous iterations, replacing "Han Chinese" with "Middle Eastern" or "Japanese". It didn't sound any better then (and it doesn't seem to come up when the competition is Caucasian - funny that....). Considering Wen Ho Lee, and the Taiwanese guy who was driven out of the country on bad premises who helped China develop their rockets, it may also be a continuation of old bad habits (ones which violate reasonable societal norms while failing to further legitimate security interests).

      Getting money on bank cards and trying to evade money handling checks doesn't sound good - it sounds like the sort of thing one would do if the reasons for receiving the money couldn't stand scrutiny. It be good to have hard evidence of that, though.

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  2. "And a large enough amount of money can shift loyalties."

    A small enough amount of money can shift loyalties too. Maybe something to think about when thinking out federal research budgets.

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    1. I thought the Russians/Soviets were never terribly generous at paying assets, and yet they seemed to do just fine.

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  3. I really, really want to see all the cards on the table during the discovery phase of the litigation. It may very well be that the Feds got it wrong - that wouldn't be the first time. I also want to see their definition of "brazenly hid" the money.

    If he lied to the FBI (or even mis-spoke) he'll be hanged on that for certain; it's a cheap shot process crime for the Feds. But the accounting issue has got me wondering a lot of things that are not yet in the light of day regarding this case.

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    1. If they just charge him with lying to the FBI, they can avoid having to disclose how they obtained all of the other evidence through intelligence channels.

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  4. I worked with Charlie in the mid-2000s on a project that involved charge transport physics. Batteries don't seem like a huge stretch. I have a hard time putting together the money aspect of this case, because I don't know what he was being paid from his US grants. Had it been me, I'd have probably just left Harvard and moved to China based on what they wanted to pay him. I have several friends in the areas of chemistry/physics who have left the US in the past ~5 years to take positions in China and Korea. That would have been a cleaner way to do this, but of course it would have made double-dipping impossible and he would have lost the prestige of being a Harvard prof. So much ego in this case.

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