Authorities arrested Charles Lieber, the chair of Harvard University's Department of Chemistry, Tuesday on federal charges that he concealed work he did in connection with the Chinese government. Two researchers — both Chinese — working in Boston are also facing charges. WGBH News' All Things Considered host Arun Rath spoke with Kirk Carapezza from WGBH News' higher ed desk about the case. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Arun Rath: We know the general charges in regards against Lieber working with the Chinese government, but what exactly do federal prosecutors claim that he has done?
Carapezza: They say Lieber lied about his work with the Chinese program that recruits high-level talent that then goes on to commit espionage. We should be clear: he is not being charged with espionage. He's being charged with lying to federal authorities. In federal court, Lieber was charged with misrepresenting his Chinese ties to both the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health. And court documents claim Lieber was earning as much as $50,000 a month from a Chinese university. That's on top of his Harvard salary.
Rath: Is it unusual for professors to be getting paid that kind of money by foreign governments?
Carapezza: At this scale, higher ed leaders tell me yes, this is unusual. Now, Harvard has more than 5,000 faculty members and they're free to establish independent contracts and some of those contracts may be with foreign governments. But, I think the scale of the pay is unusual.
Rath: With that scale of pay, how is it the school didn't know about that?
Carapezza: That's what we're trying to find out. We asked Harvard that, they declined to comment for now. My sources there suggest he somehow managed to keep the university in the dark and it seems on multiple occasions, according to the court documents, Lieber actually misled Harvard. So I think Harvard, in the end, might claim that they're a victim in this case.
Rath: Now, what about these two other researchers who are Chinese nationals who are being charged? Tell us about them.
Carapezza: So, prosecutors say a Harvard affiliated researcher was caught with 21 vials of cells stolen from a lab here at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston. They claim he planned to publish research results in China under his own name. And a former student at Boston University is accused of lying to authorities about her status as a lieutenant in the People's Liberation Army.
Rath: That sounds bad. But we hear about, in academia, people stealing research. How bad is that?
Carapezza: Well, I've been asking experts about this kind of espionage, and they say it's not overblown — this happens all the time and more often than we think. U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling, who was appointed by President Trump, we should point out, says that while the U.S. benefits from international talent, Chinese economic espionage and theft is a real occurrence that the country must confront. After announcing the charges, Lelling said this case shows exactly how determined China is to steal from our institutions here in the U.S..
Rath: What about that charge, that this is part of a broader campaign by China to steal American research and technology? Have you heard anything about that?
Carapezza: Yeah, I think prosecutors are trying to send a message here. There's genuine concern about China stealing American research and technology and it's a bipartisan concern. Following these arrests, for example, Massachusetts congressman Seth Moulton, a Democrat, said he's going to introduce legislation designed to help detect foreign agents. So, I think this is a genuine concern.
Rath: And are you hearing anything about Chinese students, scholars, researchers, or anybody in U.S. academia who is feeling under increased scrutiny?
Carapezza: Some academics were already worried about a chilling effect under the Trump Administration and many in the scientific community are suspecting that investigators are racially profiling students and faculty. Now, we should point out that Lieber is white and he is the first non-Chinese scientist to be charged in what some are calling a new "red scare" on campus. Many schools here in the Boston area have told me that their international students are experiencing delays in processing to continue their career training. And some highly reputable Chinese academics have even seen difficulty getting what would ordinarily just be routine visas to come to the U.S. So, I think this is all part of a greater crackdown.
Rath: Getting back to Lieber, you mentioned that he wasn't charged with espionage, but charged for allegedly lying to federal authorities. Why would you be charged with that if there weren't something fishy going on? What's next here?
Carapezza: Yeah, it's certainly unusual, and the reaction by the judge and by Harvard is remarkable. Harvard has put him on paid administrative leave. A federal judge yesterday denied him bail and ordered him to stay in U.S. custody after prosecutors argued that he is a serious flight risk. His next court hearing is set for tomorrow, here in Boston. Some officials I was speaking with suggested that the prosecutors may be trying to shake him down right now. They might have more information.
Rath: There might be more charges or more information maybe to come from questioning, right?
Carapezza: Lelling has said this is an ongoing investigation, so I think we can expect more charges to come.