## Wednesday, January 29, 2020

### Charles Lieber

As one of the only surviving nano-related blogs, I feel somewhat obligated to write a post about this.  Charles Lieber, chair of the department of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard, was arrested yesterday by the FBI on charges of fraud.  Lieber is one of the premier nano researchers in the world.  The relevant documents are here (pdf) and they make for quite a read.

In brief, Lieber is alleged to have signed on to China's Thousand Talents program with an affiliation at Wuhan University of Technology back in 2011.  This involved the setting up of a joint research lab in Wuhan and regular interactions, including WUT students to come to Harvard.  That in itself is not necessarily problematic.  Much more concerning is the claim that WUT would pay $50K/month (plus living expenses) for his involvement, and the stipulation in the agreement that he would be working at least nine months/yr with them. That alone would raise serious conflict-of-commitment and percentage-effort issues. Worse is the allegation that this went on for years, none of this was disclosed appropriately, and in fact was denied to both DOD and (via Harvard internal folks) NIH. These allegations are shocking, and the story is hard to fathom for multiple reasons. Putting on my department chair hat, I can't help but think about how absolutely disruptive this will be for his students and postdocs, since he was placed on immediate leave. It will be a nontrivial task for the department and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard to come up with a way to transition the students to other advising and pay circumstances, and even more challenging for the postdocs. What a mess. #### 33 comments: Anonymous said... https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/05/former-los-alamos-physicist-denies-federal-charges-he-lied-about-china-ties Anonymous said... Good that he was caught, China inappropriately taking intellectual property is the elephant in the room that scientists don't like talking about. Scientists need to take into account ethical considerations for their funding. Considering the huge pressure to get the most money you can, most departments don't look highly upon bringing ethics into science except maybe at the personal conduct level. Anonymous said... The issue of China appropriating western intellectual property is immaterial to the charges against Charlie. The central issue here is that he didn't disclose his affiliations to the Department of Defense. Chinese influence campaigns have evolved from deliberate espionage into a much more subtle political project, which I think forms the basis of their involvement with Charlie. Separately, I have felt that US companies complaining about intellectual property appropriation to be disingenuous. It implies that there is covert action when in reality intellectual property was simply handed over. When doing business in China, you form a joint venture with a Chinese company. US firms considered the risk associated with such a JV and decided that this was outweighed by the profits associated with relocating operations. Now that Chinese firms are large, they cry foul. It is very much a taking cake and eating it situation. Anonymous said... Let's not shift blame here. The fact is that China does not respect intellectual property and has no plans to change that. That is the issue that lies at the core of their influence campaigns. Of all the bad coming out of the Trump administration, taking a firmer stance against China's unscrupulous IP practices is a big deal. The Lieber case sends a loud message to all academics to be wary. Anonymous said... To be clear, Prof. Lieber was not working on classified research. Therefore, there is no issue of illegal intellectual property transfer. After all the point of academia is to share knowledge through publication. The only issue is that he failed to disclose his retainer and given how complicated grant application forms are, I can see how he accidentally forgot to disclose it. I think the damage to US academia by forcing Prof. Lieber out will be immense and I'm greatly concerned about it. Also, I'm very concerned that this will further discourage Chinese students from studying in the US, which will further hurt US academia. It's not like we have competent US based students who can fill the gap (and I speak as an American who did a PhD and was in awe of my foreign colleagues). Douglas Natelson said... This is not the best venue for a general discussion of China and intellectual property. The issue at hand, as has been pointed out, is alleged lack of disclosure and honesty about time allocations, collaborative relationships, and large financial transfers. I worry about backlash against foreign students, and I worry about some kind of general public excoriation of university researchers as corrupt. Making sweeping generalizations from individual instances of bad behavior to whole populations is reckless. Anonymous said... Agree with your first portion of the message. Regarding the second, if the US does not have competent students then getting foreign students to fill the gap is a very bad solution. It means us academia is failing regardless of the Chinese situation. Anonymous said... The issue with IP is irrelevant. Not sure why comments are discussing that. But I do think this incident comes at the tail of several similar incidents in the area. I recall another Harvard faculty failed to properly report grant salary earnings, and then there is the whole Epstein donation scandal at MIT. This alleged case is a wake up call for academics. It also really strains China-US scientific relations. Douglas Natelson said... Anon@12:10, another way to look at the second point: international students who come to the US to get a research education frequently stay in the US and contribute enormous value (economic and otherwise) to society. This has been true for a long time. That does not necessarily represent some failure of US academia. It's a separate matter whether a desirable definition of success of US academia is having all of the US doctoral research opportunities being filled by US citizens and permanent residents. A clear message to all academics is, be forthright and disclose relationships with international entities, because failure to do so is problematic on many levels. Anonymous said... Will this provoke further action by the FBI? There are many famous scientists in the US benefitting from payments from China. Further editors of Nano Letters and ACS Nano come to mind, who travel extensively to China and benefit from payments for their business class tickets. Anonymous said... I guess Lieber is not alone. Check out another famous US nanoscientist and his ties to China with an Institute of Nanomedicine: http://asiatoday.com/pressrelease/world%E2%80%99s-leading-nanomedicine-research-center-established-hnu https://dailynorthwestern.com/2018/10/07/campus/northwestern-professor-chad-mirkin-receives-chinas-friendship-award/ Northwestern professor Chad Mirkin receives Friendship Award from Chinese Vice Premier Liu He. Mirkin was recognized for his contributions to China's economic and social progress. I wonder whether he will get into the focus of the FBI. According to the Lieber documents, it is 40 international scientists who were recruited as foreign stars of science. So will the FBI take a look at that list? Anonymous said... I think this case is a lot more complicated than what the comments suggest. There is plenty of evidence that this is not simply a case of poor documentation, rather it seems there is a lot of secrecy and purposeful deception. Only time will tell. Doug, who is the true "guilty" party in this situation? What would you do if this happened in your department? DanM said... On the one hand, it is absolutely true that one must disclose financial arrangements with foreign governments (or, any other financial conflict of interest). This has been true for decades. It is absolutely inconceivable that Charlie Lieber simply "forgot" to do this, or that he accidentally missed that step. That's a ludicrous idea. His failure to disclose those relationships was obviously intentional. On the other hand, for many years it was pretty clear that nobody cared if you had such entanglements. Many people have had such relationships, over the years, and nobody in our government seemed to mind. It's only fairly recently that anybody started paying attention, as far as I can tell. There are now significant consequences to being a participant in these foreign talent programs - for example, it is now possible for DOD funding agencies to deny funding simply on the basis of the existence of such relationships, or even permanently ban the US researcher from EVER receiving DOD funding (although there does not seem to be a written policy enforcing this, at least not yet). The emergence of these steep consequences has certainly ramped up the incentive to hide their existence, which is, manifestly, a crime. It's a complex and still-rapidly-evolving situation. Douglas Natelson said... Anon@5:35, I agree that this looks like quite a bit more than poor documentation. The whole situation is just hard to fathom, and the courtroom will end up deciding this. Regarding your questions, of course people in the US justice system are presumed innocent until proven guilty. If what you're asking me is, who is the guilty party if the allegations in the charging documents are true, then it would have to be Prof. Lieber. The disclosure rules are clear, and misleading federal investigators is illegal. Intentionally misleading the university administration (when they ask about relationships with foreign entities) would be strongly sanctioned, especially as it can put the university's federal funding portfolio at risk. As for what I would do, it depends a bit on what you mean by "this" in your question. If you mean what would I do if one of our faculty members was arrested by the FBI on analogous charges, many things would happen - working with departmental staff to gather up all the relevant documentation (COI disclosures; current/pending forms from proposals; etc.); getting with the dean and vp for research on what else has to happen in that regard; consultations with the university general counsel's office on what I can and can't say to students, staff, and faculty (and anyone else); working with the dept assoc chair for the grad program, the dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies, and the departmental grad coordinator to make contingency plans for students and postdocs and then talk with the affected personnel; trying to contact the faculty member in question if possible to hear from them what they think needs to be done for their group; etc. Realistically, if a tenured faculty member is arrested, a process would start well above my paygrade about placing the person on leave while the university disciplinary machinery would start to go. (Universities have policies and procedures for faculty discipline and sanctions, and these typically involve lots of faculty governance to make it difficult for administrations to dismiss faculty on a whim. The many steps and usually slow pace are what prompt some non-academics to be shocked at how long it can take for professors to lose jobs when businesses can often dismiss employees much more expeditiously.) TL/DR: It would be a huge mess, and the fact that Lieber is also department chair and thus engaged in lots of departmental processes must make it even more complicated. Anonymous said... This seems to be politically motivated case, with the goal of decreasing the amount of Us-chinese scientific cooperation and exchange. The fact that the FBI agent goes on to classify the Chinese 1000 talents program as 'rewarding individuals for stealing proprietary information and violating export controls' clarifies that there is a deeper motive in this prosecution. He might still be guilty of wrongdoing, but the timeframe and response indicates that he should also serve as an example for scientists who wish to collaborate with China. The message is 'we can't arrest you for arbitrary charges, but we will carefully monitor that anything you do strictly follows procedure, and if not use it as an excuse to act'. Anonymous said... DanM regarding your comment. I heard of this policy as proposed and did not know it had been implemented. Can you add a citation? Douglas Natelson said... Anon@6:26, there is no doubt that arresting the chair of chemistry at Harvard is intended to send a loud message, but there is a lot of daylight between not “strictly following procedures” and allegedly taking and concealing hundreds of thousands of dollars, or (for the other case) smuggling cell cultures. It is worrying, though, that there are people making policy who have no idea how scientific collaboration is supposed to work and how much it can benefit the whole community. Anonymous said... I'm more interested in knowing if there is nanotechnology in the Wuhan coronavirus. I know there are HIV markers on it. Lieber's connection to Wuhan and the timing of the arrest & the outbreak are concerning. Douglas Natelson said... Anon@2:48, that's tin-foil-hat-level conspiracy mongering. My blog is not the place for it. Anonymous said... From the recent National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, "DOD is required to evaluate the ability of government and academic institutions to assess whether researchers affiliated with the department have participated in such programs," and hiding these ties would severely impede any assessment into this. I (or any of us) don't know all the details, but not disclosing this information, or intentionally hiding it, is definitely a big no, and the motivations can be varying. One of those includes making it easier to get grant funding through the DoD. Some positions I have applied for have specifically noted that I am ineligible if I have participated, or am in the process of participating, in any foreign talent recruitment programs. https://www.aip.org/fyi/2019/us-government-escalates-opposition-chinese-talent-recruitment-programs dustintexan said... For Prof. Lieber, the issue is whether he disclosed the funding from the Chinese government to Harvard and US government officials, especially on being questioned about it. The charges say he did not. There is an implicit IP issue in that was any patentable research disclosed to people or institutions not listed on a NDA? If he did not reveal payments, then he likely did not have appropriate paperwork in place for protection of IP. I've no proof of that, just saying it is very complicated as you mentioned Doug. The other professor arrested for the intent to smuggle cell cultures is dealing with theft and IP issues. Several people have been arrested recently for trying to steal pharmaceutical or software IP from US industries. So IP is part of the larger picture, if not the focus of Lieber's problem. Foreign students do add immeasurably to our knowledge and to our publications. Our universities and funding allow them to do that, and their US advisers impart guidance and knowledge. The freedom to explore is part of the US culture. So I think the balance of benefits is even between foreign students and US academic institutions. I also think it is good to have an awareness of the potential problems that could exist. US academic research is supported by the US tax payer (me). Grumpy said... I'm torn on this one. On the one hand I dislike the government crackdown on Thousand Talents and think it stems from xenophobic anti-China sentiments that I find abhorrent (look no further than some of the comments on this blog). On the other hand, this case would seem to justify all of these efforts. Assuming the documents are correct,a I have no reason to doubt them, what incredible greed Lieber has demonstrated! How can you think it is ok to accept millions of dollars in cash and deposits to foreign bank accounts for doing seemingly little beyond typical professor duties (e.g. mentor junior scientists and reviewing manuscripts)? And then to avoid disclosing this information to your university and federal funding agencies for almost a decade? I don't know Lieber personally, but obviously am aware of his extensive scholarly achievements. I hope they are ignored when meting out justice in this case. Anonymous said... Grumpy, I think this case highlights that we are not paying elite faculty members enough. The cost of living in Boston has been skyrocketing and thus Prof. Lieber was forced to resort to taking a supplemental salary from China. Also, if we come down hard on him now, he will have no choice but to move to China and take his talents there. I do agree that the government crackdown on Thousand Talents is excessive. Anonymous said... It is baffling to see someone conclude that elite professors need to be paid more from this debacle. Full professors at Harvard are very, very well off. Anonymous said... I don't think xenophobia is the right term here, there is clearly malicious intent on the Chinese government side to think such an arrangement is ethically acceptable in the first place. To ignore this part of the issue and term it xenophobia does a disservice to true xenophobia which Western cultures have increasingly shown over the years. Suomynona said... According to the American Association of University Professors, the average salary for a full professor at Harvard in 2018 was$245,800. A full professor who is also department chair would presumably make higher than the average. That's not a salary which implies financial struggle.

A curious observation by Science magazine is that Lieber's agreement with WUT was based around developing batteries for electric vehicles, despite the fact that Lieber has never done research related to energy storage.

Douglas Natelson said...

Anon@10:15, I'm virtually certain that the first paragraph from Anon@11:45 is sarcastic.

Sylow said...

Let's face this. Thousand talents program is nothing but a covert espionage ring. Shou-Cheng Zhang who committed suicide at Stanford was also part of that ring. Do we have a credible explanation as to why he committed suicide? Who has any doubt that he was part of a clandestine operation? And, yes, Lieber is the tip of the iceberg here. If anything, this saga tells us that further arrests will come. I have to warn you that they may include people in your department. Other editors of nano journals who were spending extended periods in China?

Grumpy said...

@Anon 11:45 am,

The reason I said I am torn is because indeed this particular investigation does not seem to be rooted in xenophobia but rather uncovering real fraud. But the commenters in this thread keep proving my point about the broader Thousand Talents investigations.

Also, it is not clear to me that China's intent was malicious here. It seems they wanted to use Lieber's name to lend legitimacy to their Institute at Wuhan and to train junior scientists in his lab. A bit insincere, sure, but that is hardly an abnormal practice (see, e.g., the advisory board at many tech firms or similar arrangements at other scientific institutes).

AFAIK, the Chinese government does not owe Harvard a disclosure of these efforts, that is Lieber's responsibility.

The covert method of payments is sketchy and possibly unethical but I can't be sure that was the Chinese government's intention as opposed to the actions of the Wuhan personnel involved.

Anonymous said...

...and the National Academy of Engineering just elected Lieber as a member...

Douglas Natelson said...

Sylow, I don't want to have speculations about motives for suicide on my blog. Zhang was a complicated person who put enormous pressure on himself and also was involved in high stakes financial market investments. Anything else is unfounded speculation.

Raj Giri said...

It's an interesting development. Incidentally, if memory serves my first research paper in grad school (for your class, Doug!) was on Si nanowires out of the Lieber lab, and I of course had to read all the STM papers on nanotubes his group put out in the late 90s and early 00s. So, the news hit mildly close to home.

It's very disruptive to the students, and I can't imagine how to deal with the financial implications for the students and, especially, post-docs.

DanM said...

Anon @10:24
I think somebody beat me to it already in responding to your query, but here's another few relevant links:
https://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2019/nsf19200/research_protection.jsp
https://www.sciencemag.org/sites/default/files/January%20DOE%20memo.pdf