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Harvard chemistry chief’s arrest over China links shocks researchers

Nanoscientist Charles Lieber allegedly lied about his involvement in China’s Thousand Talents Plan.

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Prof Charles M. Lieber

Charles Lieber has been accused of failing to disclose funding he received from the Chinese government.Credit: Kris Snibbe/Harvard Public Affairs & Communications, CC BY-SA 4.0

Researchers have reacted with shock to the arrest of Charles Lieber, a prominent Harvard University chemist and nanotechnology pioneer, who has been charged with making false statements to the US government about receiving research funding from China.

Lieber, who is known for engineering new nanomaterials and developing their applications in medicine and biology, was arrested on 28 January. Two days later, a federal judge approved his release on cash bail of US$1 million.

The charges focus on Lieber’s alleged involvement in China’s Thousand Talents Plan, a prestigious programme designed to recruit leading academics to the country. Documents outlining the charges allege that Lieber received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) in China and agreed to lead a lab there — and that when US government agencies asked about his involvement with the programme he stated that he was not a participant and denied any formal affiliation with WUT. Lieber’s legal team did not respond to Nature’s requests for comment.

The arrest comes as US authorities are increasingly scrutinizing universities’ foreign links, amid fears that overseas governments could be stealing intellectual property or influencing US research.

Shockwaves

Colleagues and former students of Lieber contacted by Nature are stunned by the detainment of such a high-profile scientist. Lieber has been a faculty member at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, since 1991, and is currently chair of the university’s department of chemistry and chemical biology. His work, which has included the development of nanometre-diameter wires that can be used as sensors, has won him top awards, among them the 2017 NIH Director’s Pioneer Award and the 2012 Wolf Prize in Chemistry. In 2008, he was tipped by Thomson Reuters as a potential Nobel prizewinner.

“Charlie is the purest scientific scholar I have ever seen and personally I have 100% trust and confidence in him. I think there must be some misunderstanding during the handling of the case,” says Xiaocheng Jiang, a former student of Lieber’s who is now a biomedical engineer at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.

“I was shocked,” says Joshua Sanes, a molecular biologist at Harvard who has co-authored two papers on the use of electronic devices to measure nerve activity in the mouse eye with Lieber. “I didn’t know anything about it until I saw the report in The New York Times.” The newspaper reported the allegations on 28 January.

Harvard University, where Lieber’s lab hosts more than a dozen graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, has placed Lieber on paid administrative leave, barred him from campus, and suspended his research and teaching roles. “The charges brought by the US government against Professor Lieber are extremely serious,” a spokesperson for the university told Nature. “Harvard is cooperating with federal authorities, including the National Institutes of Health, and is conducting its own review of the alleged misconduct.”

A spokesperson for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — from which Lieber also received funds — referred Nature’s queries to the FBI, citing an ongoing investigation.

Links to China

Details of Lieber’s alleged offences appear in a charging document submitted by the FBI in connection with his arrest. It says that for periods of time between 2012 and 2017, Lieber agreed to be paid a salary of $50,000 per month, as well as about $150,000 a year in personal and living expenses, by WUT, and was given more than $1.5 million to set up a research lab there. According to a contract cited in the document, Lieber was to work at or for WUT for at least nine months a year. Lieber also agreed to host visiting scientists for two-month stints at his US lab, according to the FBI, an agreement that Harvard was not aware of.

At the same time, Lieber continued his tenure at Harvard University and applied for funding from US agencies, receiving at least $15 million in federal grants from the Department of Defense (DOD) and the NIH since 2008. NIH policies require that researchers applying for federal funds disclose any funding they receive from other governments or universities outside the United States. Lieber was asked about his participation in the Thousand Talents Plan in April 2018 by DOD investigators, and by Harvard in late 2018 in response to an enquiry from the NIH. In both instances, the FBI says, he denied being part of it.

Talent programme

China’s Thousand Talents Plan has been one focus of the US government’s efforts to crack down on foreign interference in research. In November last year, a US Senate panel suggested that the programme could be a means by which the Chinese government diverts US intellectual property for the state’s own benefit. Michael Lauer, a deputy director at the NIH, told lawmakers that the contracts encouraged participants to set up ‘shadow labs’ in China that replicated their work at US institutions. In December, an elite science advisory group known as JASON recommended in a report that US agencies support fruitful international collaborations while strengthening policies that require scientists to be transparent about conflicts of interest.

However, Chinese-American scientists have raised concerns that these measures are leading to researchers of Chinese descent being unfairly targeted, and that increased scrutiny will damage those collaborations that do follow federal guidelines.

William Jorgensen, a computational chemist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, says he is worried that the publicity surrounding Lieber’s arrest will prejudice US researchers against scientists in China. “Don’t confuse the Chinese government with the rank and file faculty in China,” he says, adding that his own experience of working alongside researchers at Chinese universities has been positive.

Lieber is not the first US scientist to become embroiled in ongoing political tensions between the United States and China. Last month, a former scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, who was accused of applying to and being recruited by the Thousand Talents Plan, pleaded guilty to making a false statement to the US government. And the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, recently reported that six employees, including the chief executive, were forced to resign over failing to disclose their connection to the programme.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-00291-2

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