More academics behaving really badly

A shocking news report reveals that federal authorities have leveled charges about how Charles M. Lieber, the chair of the chemistry department at Harvard University, engaged in extraordinary acts of academic malfeasance of a financial nature.

Court documents allege Mr Lieber, who has worked as the head investigator at the Lieber Research Group at Harvard University, received more than $15m (£11.5m) in grants from the US National Institute of Health and the US Department of Defence.

Recipients of these grants have to disclose any conflicts of interest, including financial support from foreign governments or organisations.

However in 2011, allegedly without Harvard’s knowledge, Mr Lieber joined Wuhan University of Technology in China as a scientist.

According to the court papers, he also participated in the Thousand Talents Plan, a programme that aims to attract foreign research specialists. The US has flagged the programme as a security concern in the past.

From his role at Wuhan University of Technology, Mr Lieber was given a monthly salary of $50,000, in addition to living expenses of up to $158,000.

The filings say he was also given more than $1.5m to establish a research lab at Wuhan University of Technology and, in return, was expected to work for the university, applying for patents and publishing articles in its name.

The court filings claim Mr Lieber failed to disclose this information and during an interview with investigators, lied about his involvement in the Thousand Talents plan and his affiliation with the university in Wuhan.

Lieber has been placed on indefinite paid administrative leave.

Lieber and his lawyer, Peter Lovitt, did not respond to requests for comment on the case.

Swain wrote in an emailed statement that the University is conducting its own review of the allegations against Lieber. Lieber is not allowed on Harvard’s campus and will not continue his teaching and research duties, according to Swain.

Lieber appeared at his Tuesday hearing in a Boston courtroom in shackles and will remain in federal custody until another hearing Thursday, the Boston Globe reported.

Two other individuals — Chinese nationals Yanqing Ye and Zaosong Zheng — were also charged Tuesday in connection with allegedly aiding the Chinese government in separate cases, the U.S. Department of Justice announced in the same press release charging Lieber. Zheng is a researcher affiliated with Harvard Medical School.

What is shocking is not that academics can be greedy and engage in financial wrongdoing. What is surprising is that some of them can be so stupid. As head of a major department at one of the world’s most prestigious universities, how could Lieber have not known that making this kind of secret deal was bound to become public knowledge at some point, with massive negative repercussions for him? Perhaps the very eminence he has achieved in his career led him to think that he was somehow untouchable?

It is true that if you are a prestigious researcher bringing in lots of research money, universities will be indulgent towards you and give you some leeway in stretching the rules. But here it seems like he bypassed the internal reporting system entirely. It might be possible to evade detection for relatively small amounts of money or if it was a one-off deal. But this was a massive, long-term operation. How could Harvard’s internal system of checks and balances not have detected this for nearly a decade?


  1. Bruce says

    I just hope Dr. Lieber wasn’t running unapproved flu mutation experiments at Wuhan U these past few years.

  2. Matt G says

    This guy at Harvard, that lab at MIT with Epstein money, Dershowitz and Pinker, and the list of academic sleaze-balls continues to grow.

  3. Timothy says

    The original article was a bit unclear for me — Harvard places him on indefinite paid leave, but later the article states, “Lieber appeared at his Tuesday hearing in a Boston courtroom in shackles and will remain in federal custody until another hearing Thursday, the Boston Globe reported.”

    So he’s incarcerated and being charged with something?

  4. Mano Singham says


    Yes, he has been charged in court. When applying for government grants, you have to disclose any other sources of funding you have. This is to guard against double-dipping and conflicts of interest. Limber apparently not only did not do that but failed to disclose funding from a foreign government, which is even more serious. But the university cannot simply fire a tenured professor but has to go through a long process, and putting him on fully paid leave is usually the first stage of that internal process.

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