The Justice Department announced on Tuesday that Dr. Charles Lieber, formerly chair of the Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department at Harvard University, has been indicted on two counts of making false statements to federal investigators about his ties to China’s Thousand Talents Program (TTP).
TTP has come under heavy scrutiny as a recruiting mechanism for Chinese intellectual property theft and espionage.
According to the charging documents, the 61-year-old Lieber was arrested in late January after failing to disclose his ties to TTP, and on several cases falsely stating he was not a participant in any of its programs. Lieber allegedly worked as a “strategic scientist” for the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) in China at the same time he was running a Harvard research group specializing in nanoscience.
The Justice Department alleged that Lieber was a “contractual participant” in TTP as a “high level foreign expert” from 2012 through 2015, receiving a salary of up to $50,000 for his work at the Wuhan university plus lavish living expenses and a $1.5 million research grant. His contract required him to work for the Wuhan University of Technology for at least nine months out of each year.
Lieber’s work for China evidently came to light because the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Department of Defense investigated his work while processing some $15 million in research grants for his group at Harvard. Lieber denied he was involved with either TTP or WUT. At one point he claimed WUT “falsely exaggerated” his involvement with its activities.
According to the Harvard Crimson, Lieber was arrested on January 28, placed on paid administrative leave by the university the same day, and released from jail on $1 million bail.
Politico noted that Lieber’s grand jury indictment took several months to put together due to delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Lieber is regarded as one of the leading chemistry researchers in America, so his case is among the highest-profile exercises to date in the Justice Department’s push against Chinese espionage activity in American universities.
Lieber’s lawyers responded to the indictment by insisting “the government has this wrong” and saying Lieber is completely dedicated to “science and to his students,” not financial gain.