The trade secrets of American industries and research institutions are often the target of foreign interests, as this blog has detailed in the past. Most recently, on June 9, 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) indicted the former Chair of Harvard University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department and nanoscientist, Dr. Charles Lieber, for allegedly making false statements to federal authorities about his participation in China’s “Thousand Talents Plan.” This Plan, according to a 2019 Senate report, is part of China’s “strategic plan to acquire knowledge and intellectual property from researchers, scientists, and the U.S. private sector.” Past participants in the Plan have included a former General Electric engineer, Xiaoqing Zheng, who was indicted in April 2019 for allegedly stealing GE’s trade secrets related to turbine technology while employed at GE Power & Water in Schenectady, New York.
China’s Thousand Talents Plan began in 2008 and has been a concern of the U.S. government for some time. A 2019 Senate report characterized the Plan as a danger to American national security and proprietary information and stated that it “incentivizes individuals engaged in research and development in the United States to transmit the knowledge and research they gain [in the United States] to China in exchange for salaries, research funding, lab space, and other incentives.” The report expresses a concern about American individuals who download sensitive information, submit false information in grant applications, and choose not to disclose the money they received from the Thousand Talents Plan when applying for United States grants. Those concerns may have been realized in the case of Dr. Lieber.
Dr. Lieber allegedly signed a three-year employment contract with China’s Wuhan University of Technology (“WUT”) in or around July 2012 characterizing Dr. Lieber as a “High Level Foreign Expert.” That contract allegedly paid Dr. Lieber a salary of $50,000 per month, $158,000 per month in living expenses, and more than $1.5 million to establish a lab in China. During his participation in the Plan, Dr. Lieber allegedly organized international conferences, published articles, and applied for patents on behalf of WUT.
Around the same period, Dr. Lieber’s Harvard research program had received millions of dollars of funding from the Department of Defense (“DOD”) and the National Institutes of Health (“NIH”). DOD and NIH grants require the recipient to disclose foreign collaboration, potential conflicts of interest, and sources of financial support. When applying for additional research grants and during a federal investigation in 2018 and 2019, however, Dr. Lieber allegedly hid his participation in the Plan and with WUT and made false statements regarding the same.
If Dr. Lieber is found guilty, the charge of making false statements could carry a sentence of up to five years in prison, up to three years of supervised release, and a fine of up to $250,000.
We will continue to monitor the government’s actions with respect to the Thousand Talents Plan and report on any developments with Dr. Lieber’s case.