When scientific activity becomes a controlled export

The U.S. Justice Department is turning up the heat on American and foreign scientists working in this country who may illicitly export cutting-edge research to the Chinese government.

On Tuesday, the department announced the arrest of Dr. Charles Lieber, 60, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University, on a charge of making a “materially false, fictitious and fraudulent statement” regarding his research contracts with the Chinese government.

Since 2008, Lieber has served as the principal investigator of Harvard University’s Lieber Research Group, which specializes in nanoscience technologies. The group has received more than $15 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Defense Department. These grants require the disclosure of significant foreign financial conflicts of interest, including financial support from overseas governments or entities.

According to the Justice Department’s criminal complaint, Lieber, without Harvard’s knowledge, worked as a “strategic scientist” for China’s Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) and had a contract involving the country’s Thousand Talents Plan from 2012 to 2017.

“China’s Thousand Talents Plan is one of the most prominent Chinese Talent recruit 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,” the Justice Department said in a statement.

The department said Leiber’s three-year Thousand Talents contract provided him $50,000 a month and up to $158,000 per year in living expenses. He also received more than $1.5 million to create a research lab for WUT.

The Justice Department’s criminal complaint alleges that in 2018 and 2019 Lieber lied about his involvement in the Thousand Talents Plan and affiliation with the Chinese university.

“Lieber 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,” the Justice Department said.

If convicted, Lieber faces a $250,000 fine and up to five years in prison. His case will be tried in a federal court in Boston.

In addition, the Justice Department on Tuesday said it indicted Chinese national and military officer Yanqing Ye, 29, on one count each of visa fraud, making false statements, acting as an agent of a foreign government and conspiracy. She is currently in China.

On Dec. 10, federal agents arrested Zaosong Zheng, 30, at Boston’s Logan International Airport before he boarded a flight to Beijing. In his luggage allegedly were 21 vials of cancer cells generated in the lab of his former employer, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He was indicted on Jan. 21 for smuggling and making false statements.

“This is a small sample of China’s ongoing campaign to siphon off American technology and know-how for Chinese gain,” said U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling at a press conference in Boston announcing Lieber’s arrest.

“China is engaged in a massive, long-term campaign to steal U.S. research and technology for its own uses,” he added.

The Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) and State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls determine whether an export license is required to release technological know-how to a foreign national working in the United States.

So-called “deemed export” controls were implemented in 1994 to keep a lid on foreign nationals gaining unauthorized access to certain advanced commercial technologies that could be used in the development of weapons systems in unfriendly countries.

BIS officials at the agency’s 2019 Annual Conference on Export Controls in Washington, D.C., last summer said in a presentation that 56 countries use “clandestine and illegal methods” to gather details on U.S. technology, resulting in billions of dollars lost to American companies and research institutions. China and Iran currently top the agency’s list of countries that carry out these activities.

The key technologies targeted by these countries, according to the agency, include biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, nanotechnology, quantum computing, advanced materials, submersible vehicles, acoustic communications and sensors, communications and encryption technology, satellites and spacecraft, and weapons systems.

The U.S. government, including the FBI, increasingly considers China to be at the forefront of using academics, researchers and visiting scientists to U.S. universities and research institutions to illicitly obtain intellectual property related to cutting-edge technologies.

“Obviously, most Chinese academics and researchers are here to work in good faith in U.S. institutions, but some of them are not,” Lelling said.

However, Paul DiVecchio, a 40-year export regulations consultant based in Boston, warned the Harvard case demonstrates the importance that today’s American universities and research institutions have “a robust export compliance program” overseen by “a qualified export compliance officer and staff” that report to the highest level of management.