Conviction of Harvard professor over links with China should be a wake-up call to US scientists and universities
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Dr Charles Lieber, chairman of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University, was recently convicted on several counts, including lying about receiving payments from the ‘Thousand Talent Project. From the Chinese government. His conviction should serve as a wake-up call to American scientists, universities and research institutes.
Lieber specializes in nanoscience, which studies small things. Nanotechnology is the application of nanoscience and can revolutionize a wide range of fields, from healthcare to manufacturing. Lieber’s work has been credited with helping develop “bio-nanoelectronic sensors capable of detecting disease down to the level of a single infectious viral particle.” Lieber has won numerous awards and he and his associates own more than 35 patents.
As one of the nation’s top scientists, Lieber has received more than $ 15 million in grants from the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the Department of Defense (DOD). Part of the requirements of these grants is the disclosure of material conflicts of interest, including financial support from foreign entities. Yet Lieber did not disclose his position as “strategic scientist at Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) in China” and his participation in China’s “Thousand Talent Project” (TTP) from 2012 to 2017.
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The Chinese government launched the TTP in 2008 to “attract, recruit and cultivate high-level scientific talent to promote China’s scientific development, economic prosperity and national security.” The TTP is under the direct leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The program typically targets leading experts and researchers who work in areas of strategic importance, such as artificial intelligence (AI), regardless of nationality or ethnicity. The TTP allows the CCP to exploit the openness and academic freedom of Western democracies to get their hands on advanced technologies and research development abroad.
The case of Lieber is a typical example of how TTP works. The court document shows that WUT paid Lieber a monthly salary of $ 50,000, around $ 150,000 in annual living expenses, and over $ 1.5 million to set up a research lab in China. In return, Lieber had to work for WUT at least nine months a year. His responsibilities included “declaring international cooperation projects, training young teachers and doctoral students, organizing an international conference[s], filing patents and publishing articles on behalf of “WUT.
It is not illegal to accept funding or even to be paid by a foreign university. However, Lieber is required by law to disclose these financial transactions when working on NIH and DOD sponsored projects. Yet Lieber not only failed to voluntarily disclose his relationship with WUT and TTP, but he also repeatedly denied that any such relationship existed when he was repeatedly questioned by the NIH and DOD.
Lieber was not the only TTP rookie who hid his pay and commitment to China. Many TTP participants do not disclose their involvement in the TTP or the financial rewards they receive. For example, officials at the Texas A&M University System found that more than 100 teachers at its schools were involved in TTP, but only five had disclosed their involvement.
Much of the technology and research that Chinese institutes seek often have both civilian and military applications.
The manner in which the TTP has been implemented raises serious concerns. First, during the TTP application process, some potential recruits must submit their research details to the agencies directly managed by the PCB for approval. It is also common for Chinese institutions to require TTP academics to sign legally binding contracts containing provisions that US authorities consider to be in violation of “US standards of research integrity.” They also “place members of the TTP in compromising legal and ethical positions and undermine core US scientific standards of transparency, reciprocity and integrity.”
The second concern is that most of the technology and research that Chinese institutes seek out often have both civilian and military applications. US officials are rightly concerned that even an innocent transfer of technology to China by TTP recruits could have national security implications. No wonder some in the United States refer to the TTP as the “thousand traitors program”.
The US authorities were slow to realize the TTP threat. Under the Trump administration, the FBI and other U.S. government agencies finally began to more closely monitor federal grant recipients over their ties to China. The US Department of Justice has opened 24 cases against US-based scientists, among whom, according to the Wall Street Journal, “nine defendants pleaded guilty. had already been sufficiently punished by being detained or otherwise restricted for a year. “
American universities and scientists have rejected the actions of the United States government, arguing that cross-border scientific cooperation is inherently beneficial to scientific development. While such an argument may be valid in other contexts, it ignores the true nature of the CCP and how it is running Chinese society.
The CCP sees Chinese universities and research institutes as the first line in realizing its ambition for world domination. Therefore, these Chinese institutions will never be purely academic institutions like their American counterparts. Everything in China, including universities, must serve the needs of the party.
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For the CCP, the TTP has been a huge success. In 2017, China reportedly recruited 7,000 researchers and scientists, including 70 Nobel Laureates, more than 300 US government researchers and more than 600 employees of US companies. The technical know-how shared by these scientists has contributed to China’s astonishing speed in closing its technological gap with the United States.
We have already witnessed the terrible implications of a tech-savvy Communist China. The CCP has built the most extensive surveillance system to monitor its citizens and suppress dissent. China is also exporting its surveillance equipment to help other authoritarian regimes do the same with their citizens.
China’s technological gains have also enabled the CCP to modernize the Chinese military and develop advanced weapons. For example, China recently surprised the US military and intelligence community with its test of a hypersonic nuclear missile based on a design by a NASA scientist. The rocket “travels five times faster than the speed of sound and can reach distances of up to 1,500 miles.” Such a weapon will put the homeland of the United States in grave danger if China and the United States go to war today.
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Therefore, scientists, universities and research institutes based in the United States cannot view their collaboration with their Chinese counterparts as innocent science exchanges. They must recognize the serious geopolitical risks and the moral implications of these cross-border collaborations.
They must do their part not to allow an authoritarian regime to threaten democracies and liberal values with their technical know-how.
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