My nominee for this year’s Higgy follows on the same theme as Greg’s nominee. For China to be the BSDD that people are increasingly recognizing it to be, it requires the complicity and active assistance of PLDDs. Just as the Soviets needed accomplices like the Rosenbergs or Alger Hiss to supply them with information to fuel their global ambitions, China has recruited its own cadre of willing stooges. Exhibit A of these stooges is Charles Lieber, the recently indicted chair of the Chemistry Department at Harvard.
It wasn’t enough that Lieber was at the top of his field, serving as the head of the Chemistry Department at an Ivy League institution, holding an endowed professorship that likely paid him several hundred thousand dollars. He needed more. So he accepted an offer from the Chinese as part of their Thousand Talents Plan to be paid as a professor at a university in, of all places, Wuhan. According to the Wall Street Journal:
As part of the Thousand Talents program, Wuhan University of Technology gave Mr. Lieber more than $1.5 million to set up a research lab in China, according to the complaint.
The school also agreed to pay him a $50,000 monthly salary and offered about $150,000 in annual living expenses for “significant periods” from 2012 to 2017, it said.
In exchange, Mr. Lieber was required to work for WUT at least nine months a year by “declaring international cooperation projects, cultivating young teachers and Ph.D. students, organizing international conference[s], applying for patents and publishing articles in the name of” the Chinese school, the complaint said.
So what’s the problem with this? Well, Lieber’s work has also been supported by significant funding from various U.S. government agencies, including the Office of Naval Research, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the National Institutes of Health. Those agencies understandably require researchers to disclose foreign funding to avoid national security risks and conflicts of interests. Lieber is alleged to have failed to disclose his Chinese support to his US government funders as well as his primary employer, Harvard. When investigators asked him directly about this support, Lieber is accused of lying to them and concealing his Chinese funding, which would be a crime.
The Chinese motivation for the Thousand Talents program is fairly obvious. They are essentially engaging in national security and industrial espionage by paying US researchers a fraction of what the US government pays them to share insights derived from that US funded research. In addition, if American researchers conceal their foreign pay, the Chinese are collecting kompromat that could be used later if they want leverage over US researchers to perform other illicit tasks for them. Lastly, the Chinese are buying powerful and influential friends in high status positions who might be able to advance Chinese talking points and propaganda.
More puzzling is what Lieber’s motivation would be for doing this. An adjunct appointment at Wuhan University of Technology could hardly enhance the professional status of the head of Harvard’s Chemistry Department. Of course, Lieber might be attracted by the millions he could make from the Chinese, but that is probably not sufficient given how many opportunities someone like Lieber has to make money from American universities and companies. In addition to the money, Lieber and previous cohorts of willing stooges have often been motivated by the PLDD belief that sharing information with foreign powers is actually helping the world. They can tell themselves that the Chinese and US should be friends and that friendship is not helped by keeping secrets from each other. They can say that they are helping the world by advancing science through the sharing of knowledge.
Some other researchers and media outlets have repeated these rationalizations. For example the NPR coverage of Lieber’s indictment notes:
These kinds of cases are not always straightforward, especially when fundamental research is involved. In spring 2015, Xi Xiaoxing, a physicist at Temple University in Philadelphia, was arrested and accused of sharing sensitive technology with his collaborators in China.
It later emerged that he never did. What’s more, he says, everything he did share was already public, because the findings of basic research aren’t secret. They’re published in scientific journals.
“Academic espionage is a contradiction,” Xi says. “There’s nothing to steal, you can just sit there and read your paper.”
Before you get too moved by these defenses, you should remember that Lieber was paid to a large extent IN CASH. As the Wall Street Journal reports: “his contact at Wuhan discussed how Mr. Lieber would be paid, with some of the funds from Wuhan to be deposited for him in a Chinese bank account and some provided in cash. ‘Our university has put your salary in your…[bank] card and we will help you change the cash for you when you come to Wuhan,’ the Wuhan contact wrote in one January 2017 message.”
Famous scientists tend not to be paid in cash and with foreign bank cards for their research when that work is above board. And they tend not to lie to their employer and federal investigators when that work is clean. Lieber must have known that what he was doing was dirty. Self-delusion is not that strong. And the Chinese were not paying famous scientists in cash because of their love of science. They knew what they were buying.
When the plague under which we currently suffer is lifted, I expect that we will find ourselves in a new Cold War with China. And Lieber will likely be remembered as one of the early traitors to his country in that struggle. No PLDD delusions of sharing knowledge to promote mutual understanding, peace, and science will rescue him. For that, Charles Lieber is worthy of The Higgy.