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Harvard professor charged over China ties in case with echoes of Moffitt, UF

Charles Lieber was arrested in his campus office Tuesday, accused of lying about his participation in China’s Thousand Talents program.
The statue of John Harvard sits in Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Federal prosecutors on Tuesday charged Charles Lieber, chair of the department of chemistry and chemical biology, with lying to officials about his involvement with a recruitment program run by the Chinese government. Prosecutors said he received tens of thousands of dollars through the program. [CHARLES KRUPA | Associated Press]

A Harvard University professor has been charged with lying to officials about his involvement with a Chinese government-run recruitment program and his affiliation with a Chinese university, prosecutors said Tuesday.

Charles Lieber, chair of the department of chemistry and chemical biology, was arrested at his office at the prestigious university Tuesday morning and charged with lying about his participation in China’s Thousand Talents Plan, a program established by China to recruit people with access to and knowledge of foreign technology and intellectual property.

Thousand Talents has figured prominently in Florida, where Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center and the University of Florida have recently come under scrutiny as part of the same government crackdown that led to Lieber’s arrest.

Six Moffitt employees — including now-former CEO Dr. Alan List — were forced to resign over not disclosing their recruitment into the program by a fellow employee, biochemist Dr. Sheng Wei, according to a report from a special committee of the Florida House investigating research ties to China.

At UF, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and a researcher in the College of Medicine who participated in Thousand Talents were forced out after failing to disclose their financial ties to the program.

A third UF faculty member, a professor of chemistry, was active in two similar talent programs backed by the Chinese government and held top positions at two Chinese universities while also working for UF. He was forced to resign as well.

The alleged breaches at Moffitt and UF remain under investigation.

In the Harvard case, Lieber was expected to appear in court later Tuesday. His attorney didn’t immediately respond to an email sent Tuesday.

Prosecutors say under Lieber’s Thousand Talent’s program contract, he was paid $50,000 a month by the Wuhan University of Technology in China and living expenses up to $158,000. He was also awarded more than $1.5 million to establish a research lab at the Chinese university, prosecutors said.

The case reflects ongoing Justice Department concerns that universities are failing to report foreign sources of funding that their professors receive, particularly from China. Federal prosecutors across the country in the last year have charged multiple scientists working in the United States with hiding research grants from Beijing and with pilfering research so that it can it be used for China’s economic gain. Officials have sounded the alarm in particular about talent recruitment programs that they say are thinly veiled efforts to seize on American research.

Information from Tampa Bay Times files was used in this report.