A Harvard University professor arrested by federal authorities Tuesday is being accused by the U.S. government of lying to officials about his ties to a Chinese school and program aimed at furthering the communist superpower’s “scientific development, economic prosperity and national security.”
Charles Leiber, who chairs the prestigious school’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, was taken into custody at his office. He has been charged with one count of making a materially false, fictitious and fraudulent statement – and was set to appear Tuesday in federal court in Boston, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the District of Massachusetts.
“Unbeknownst to Harvard University, beginning in 2011, Lieber became a ‘Strategic Scientist’ at Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) in China and was a contractual participant in China’s Thousand Talents Plan from in or about 2012 to 2017,” a statement from the Office says.
“China’s Thousand Talents Plan is one of the most prominent Chinese Talent recruitment plans that are designed to attract, recruit, and cultivate high-level scientific talent in furtherance of China’s scientific development, economic prosperity and national security,” it continues. “These talent programs seek to lure Chinese overseas talent and foreign experts to bring their knowledge and experience to China and reward individuals for stealing proprietary information.”
Prosecutors say Leiber’s research group at Harvard – which specializes in nanoscience – has received more than $15 million in grant funding from the National Institutes of Health and U.S. Department of Defense. The grants, they say, require “the disclosure of significant foreign financial conflicts of interest, including financial support from foreign governments or foreign entities.”
But federal investigators allege Leiber “lied” about his involvement with China and the Wuhan University of Technology. Under the terms of his Thousand Talents contract, they say, the school paid him $50,000 a month and awarded him more than $1.5 million to set up a research lab there.
The Wuhan institution also allegedly provided Leiber with round-trip, business class flights to and from China, prosecutors say.
“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 district attorney’s office said in its statement.
U.S. prosecutors say around April 2018, “during an interview with investigators, Lieber stated that he was never asked to participate in the Thousand Talents Program” and that he “’wasn’t sure’ how China categorized him.”
The statement also says Lieber, later that year, “caused Harvard to falsely tell NIH that Lieber ‘had no formal association with WUT’ after 2012, that ‘WUT continued to falsely exaggerate’ his involvement with WUT in subsequent years, and that Lieber ‘is not and has never been a participant in’ China’s Thousand Talents Plan."
Harvard officials, in response to Leiber’s arrest Tuesday, say he has been placed on “indefinite” paid administrative leave and has been barred from the campus, according to the Harvard Crimson student newspaper.
“The charges brought by the U.S. government against Professor Lieber are extremely serious,” University spokesperson Jonathan Swain said in a statement. “Harvard is cooperating with federal authorities, including the National Institutes of Health, and is conducting its own review of the alleged misconduct.”