Harvard Professor's Arrest Raises Questions About Scientific Openness



So it's May of Twenty fifteen. And a researcher named Chichaou. Shing is at his home near Philadelphia. She is a physicist at Temple University who studies SUPERCONDUCTIVITY SPECIAL MATERIALS. That can sometimes lead electricity flow through them with no resistance. There's a ton of applications for it and all of a sudden there's a knock door very very loud and urgency rental open the learns Esau arm agents outside and pointing their guns to my wife and daughters into an Tokyo in Hong Cups and I had absolutely no idea why okay. So why was he arrested? Like what was going on what the. Us government accused him of sharing a special piece of equipment with researchers in China. But here's the thing he did. Do it prosecutors. Were confused because well it turns out. Superconducting technology is just really complicated. But what about the idea that he was helping? The Chinese developed superconducting technology. Just in general. Well Dr she says sure. He works with scientists in China all the time and sometimes he spent summers over there doing research with them. But as you know Mattie one of the basic pillars of fundamental research is openness nothing. He shared was classified or restricted in any way. Qadam ICK espionage. It's a contradiction me. Everything we are doing is fundamental research. There's nothing to steal can. Just sit there and read your paper and sure enough about six months after this whole thing starts. The charges are dropped against doctor she. The government admits he's done absolutely nothing. Wrong I mean honestly it sounds like he just had collaborators which is like a major thing in science unless there was some weird money. Thing being exchanged or going on this is what scientists do. Yeah I mean. They're technologies that are restricted for example stuff to do with rockets that could be used in missile development say. The government has very strict rules about sharing that kind of information but generally scientists open collaborations. Happened all over the world. The thing is China is getting a lot more scrutiny. These days so fast forward to twenty eighteen attorney general. Jeff sessions is really concerned about the theft of scientific knowledge and intellectual property by the Chinese so the Justice Department launches what it calls its China initiative the goal is to crack down on the transfer of US knowledge to China and in the academic community the focus. False really quickly. I'm one program in particular. It's called the thousand Talents Plan. So our understanding is that originally. The purpose of the thousand talents program was to reverse the brain drain. That's Michael Lower. He's deputy director of extramural research at the National Institutes of health. And he's the main guy at NIH dealing with thousand talents. When he says brain-drain an example of that is like scientists. Go abroad to study and then end up staying in whatever country instead of coming back home. Exactly the Chinese government wanted to bring back outstanding scientists to China so as to develop their science and technology and the way the Chinese government does is by offering money so researchers set up labs in China and they spend at least part of their year over there Doing their work in exchange for grants and expenses paid and the program grew pretty quickly to include non-chinese scientists as well right and I think there are these kinds of programs in other countries to yeah. It's not uncommon. Canada had something called the one hundred fifty research chairs. I mean. That's kind of the less ambitious Canadian equivalent. Chevy Sega but with lower says is the thousand talents program has gone too far in the real problem from his perspective is that in a number of cases researchers are not telling their home universities or the. Us government for that matter about Chinese funding and not disclosing that Chinese funding. That's what's actually against the law. Exactly the types of behaviors that we are seeing are not subtle or minor violations What we're seeing is really quite egregious and that brings us back to Charles Lieber. The Harvard Chemist We were talking about earlier. Who is arrested back in January the complaint alleges Doctor Lieber signed a contract with the Chinese University in Wuhan and was paid to fifty thousand dollars per month plus up to one hundred and fifty eight thousand dollars in living expenses and awarded more than one point five million dollars to set up a research lab at the Chinese school and work there on researching nanotechnology that is a lot of money. Jeff that is like ten post docs full of money. At least I love that. Your brain calculates prices in post is seen but the bottom line is. It is a lot of money in the criminal complaint. Alleges not only did he get all this money. Lieber lied about being part of the program to Harvard to the NIH in the Department of Defense. Which together we're also giving him many millions of dollars in research money. I should say Lieber attorneys declined to comment about this case. They didn't WanNa speak to me but Mike clower from the NIH says there's a larger pattern here other scientists have done the same and it's a real problem. Collaboration does not involve offshore offshore bank accounts. collaboration does involve undisclosed cash payments. It does not involve undisclosed employment agreements or undisclosed contracts. It does not involve double dipping. Where a person is being paid salary to work in China and to work in the United States at the same time several scientists and other institutions have been fired over this he says the NIH is currently investigating around one hundred eighty other scientists. He thinks this is a systemic problem. So if these cases involve lying failing to disclose information which we do know is against the law. Why are scientists doing this? It's a really interesting question and I don't have a great answer as I said. Liebers attorneys have declined to speak to me In other cases other scientists who've been fired don't talk to the press generally now lower says. In some cases the thousand talents contracts scientists sign actually come with a nondisclosure agreements. So they're actually told by the Chinese not to say anything which is illegal but there's also more going on I mean it may be then some cases they fear if they disclose money from the Chinese. They are going to get more scrutiny on their work and then something else to consider is the possibility of just plain old greed the criminal complaint against Charles Lieber alleges and I should say alleged here that he was receiving cash payments from the Chinese. That some of this money was just coming straight up cash. Okay so the sounds problematic for sure but is it espionage. Maybe I have like an outdated old timey spy version of espionage but it doesn't necessarily feel like that to me no I mean. It isn't really espionage. I think it's really important to say that. Lieber isn't technically being accused of espionage. The government this is about the money and I think it's very telling the US government's going after the money rather than transfers of technology like you remember that superconducting case earlier. It's really hard to tell of. Someone's doing something illegal when they're collaborating scientifically and that's also got some people wondering whether these sorts of cases really deserve criminal treatment so frank who is somebody I spoke to. He's a professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law and he tracks these espionage cases and says arresting people for issues around what they disclosed for their grants. It just feels heavy handed to him zone. The past if there was a problem somebody would talk to you. Maybe you would face disciplined from your employer but you wouldn't face being fired and going to prison and having your name dragged through the mud as a spy in fact the same day. Lieber was arrested the Justice Department announced the arrest of two Chinese nationals. They say had lied on visa. Applications and illegally transferred biological samples. These aren't exactly the same kind of case. But you know it's the same general flavor. It sounds like a lot of people who have been accused are Chinese nationals or ethnically Chinese. Does we think that racism plays a role in this well would midst. There are some real espionage cases that involve Chinese people and they have been convicted. But they're sort of larger tone around all this. It sounds very familiar to him. No matter how assimilated. You are no matter how much you think yourself. I'm an American just like any other American winner of Chinese background. There's that risk always that people will look at you and suspect you're actually communist agent now. I should say. Us officials categorically denied. This has anything to do with race. I interviewed Andrew Leveling the federal prosecutor. Who ARRESTED LIEBER? And he said this if it was the French governments that was attempting to steal. Us technology in a massive decadelong campaign. We'd look for French people. But it's not it's the Chinese government and he actually points to the Lieber case as an example of how they're willing to prosecute anyone they think is broken the law by lying but even if the government doesn't think it's racial profiling it's definitely having an effect on the Chinese research. Community your remember. Chichaou shing the researcher who was falsely accused that we talked about well. I asked him. Does he still work with colleagues? In China. The short answer is yes but the more Ah Longer answer. Is that to my research. Now is much much smaller than used to be. And that's because he doesn't want to apply for federal grants anymore. He's afraid he'll do something wrong so every time I do all this conflict of interest floor alright to all these Grant applications and check boxes and also I I I I shake I I. I'm scared that if anything I didn't do exactly accurately I could be in

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