The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston charged prominent Harvard chemist, Charles Lieber, on January 28, 2020 for making false statements to federal investigators concerning funding that he received from the Thousand Talents program in China. His arrest is a symptom of the growing effort from U.S. officials to stem the flow of research and researchers towards China.
The prosecution Lieber is obligated to report any foreign funding that he receives, since his nanotechnology research is funded by the National Health Institute (NIH) and the Department of Defense. However, he denied having any relationship with the Thousand Talents program when questioned by federal investigators in 2018 and 2019.that Lieber has received funding from the Thousand Talents Program since 2011, when he became a “strategic scientist” at the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT).
Lieberthat he had never been approached by the Thousand Talents Program. He also told Harvard University that he had “no formal association” with WUT and “is not and has never been” a part of the Thousand Talents Program.
Shortly after being questioned, heto a colleague at Harvard, “I will be careful about what I discuss with Harvard University, and none of this will be shared with government investigators at this time.”
He was released on bail of one million dollars two days after being charged. He and his wife have both surrendered their passports.
Lieber was charged for lying to federal investigators, not for his actual relationship with the Chinese government. In fact, most researchers can generally communicate and collaborate with their Chinese counterparts without violating any laws.
According to his contract with WUT, Lieberhis obligations as a remote employee in part by “declaring international cooperation projects, cultivating young teachers and Ph.D. students, organizing international conferences, applying for patents and publishing articles in the names of WUT.” He has not been charged for any such actions, or for his agreement with Thousand Talents to establish a lab at WUT. He has only been charged for lying to federal investigators in 2018 and 2019.
In fact, it is within the rights of most researchers to participate in programs like Thousand Talents. When Thousand Talents was founded in 2008 with the stated purpose of funding scientific innovation and reversing a so-called brain-drain from China, it ven federal agencies did not forbid their employees from participating in such programs at the time.thousands of recruits from universities, biotech companies, and government agencies in the U.S. American universities generally had no rules about their employees’ outside income or participation in such programs. E
Consequently, Thousand Talents established a connection between many researchers in the U.S. and Chinese universities. Research findingsin the U.S. were increasingly available to Chinese-based researchers through legal communication and collaborations. Some contracts stipulated that China would have intellectual property rights to the work of participants in the program.
The Thousand Talents Program has alsosome American scientists to leave American universities for better funded posts in China. The organic chemist Dr. Jon Antilla is an example of one such scientist. He left a tenured position at the University of South Florida when he was offered a post at Tianjin University in China by the program. His decision reflects a potential shift of talent from the U.S. to China, which may grow more pronounced over time.
Policing the Details
Because of the difficulties in limiting scientists from working or communicating internationally, officials attempting to stem the flow of information to China often focus on U.S. researchers’ compliance with reporting.
James Mulvenon, director for intelligence integration at SOS International, a private defense contractor,of China, “It’s not a case of them stealing technology by infiltrating a computer. What we are seeing is them relieving the rest of the world of technology by means that are not necessarily illegal.”
Peter Zeidenberg, a lawyer representing over a dozen scientists currently being investigated by the U.S. government, claimed the US is targeting scientists for failing to disclose grants.
He, “They’re taking an unbelievably heavy-handed approach to this. There is no compliance training on these forms. It’s just a form you get every year. Until recently nobody paid attention to this stuff. Now they’re cracking the whip.”