Massachusetts scientists are criticizing the Trump administration’s crackdown on suspected espionage and theft of research by China in the wake of federal charges against a Harvard University professor and two researchers at other institutions.
While emphasizing they had no independent knowledge of the charges filed Tuesday, some scientists said they feared that the Justice Department is using a broad brush to investigate people with links to China. They worried that the hard-line approach will deter foreign scientists from working in the United States.
“I have a deep concern generally in the current political climate about the objectification of any and all who are not white Christian males," said Steven Holtzman, a former Biogen executive vice president who announced his retirement this week as chief executive of Boston-based Decibel Therapeutics.
"You don’t want to get yourself into a climate where people will be so afraid of interacting with [foreigners] that they’ll stop coming,” he added. “That was McCarthyism.”
Arthur Lambert, a postdoctoral researcher at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, said there could be benign explanations for the alleged misdeeds of the three scientists, two of whom are Chinese nationals.
Neither Lambert nor Holtzman knew the defendants personally.
Shock waves rippled through the life sciences world Tuesday when federal authorities arrested Charles Lieber, 60, head of Harvard’s department of chemistry and chemical biology, and escorted him into federal court in handcuffs and shackles.
Lieber was released from federal custody Thursday after a federal magistrate judge set his bail at $1 million in cash, which he has five business days to post.
He was charged with making a false statement to federal authorities about his financial relationship with the Chinese government, particularly his participation in its Thousand Talents Plan, a program that seeks to attract foreign-educated scientists to China.
Unlike other scientists prosecuted in the recent crackdown, Lieber isn’t Chinese, nor is he an ordinary researcher. He’s a pioneer in the field of nanoscale electronics and a prolific inventor and entrepreneur. He also wasn’t accused of sharing sensitive information with China. Rather, he was accused of hiding from Harvard, the National Institutes of Health, and the Defense Department his arrangement with Thousand Talents and other business relationships in China.
In 2011, according to court filings, Lieber traveled to China’s Wuhan University of Technology to sign a long-term agreement. When the terms were finalized, he would be paid $50,000 a month, $158,000 in living expenses, and $1.5 million to establish a research lab at the Chinese university.
The same day that Lieber was arrested, federal authorities also charged two Chinese nationals who had worked in Boston.
Zaosong Zheng, a Harvard-affiliated cancer researcher, was arrested on Dec. 10 at Logan Airport. He had allegedly been caught trying to leave the country with 21 vials of cells stolen from a laboratory at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital, where he worked. He was charged with smuggling goods from the United States and making false statements. Zheng, 30, was ordered held without bail.
Also charged was Yanqing Ye, who had worked as a researcher at Boston University until last spring, when she returned to China. Ye, 29, allegedly smuggled biological research to China and concealed that she was a lieutenant in the People’s Liberation Army. She was charged with visa fraud, making false statements, acting as an agent of a foreign government, and conspiracy. She remains in China, and the court has issued a warrant for her arrest.
On Thursday, the FBI distributed a wanted poster for Ye. It accused her of working for the Chinese army while in the United States, “conducting research, assessing United States military websites, and sending United States documents and information to China.”
After the charges were filed against the three, Joseph Bonavolonta, the FBI special agent in charge of the bureau’s Boston office, said the Chinese government wants to “replace the United States as the world superpower, and it’s breaking the law to get there.”
“Chinese economic espionage and theft," said US Attorney Andrew Lelling, "is a real and daily occurrence that we must begin to confront.”
Several Massachusetts scientists acknowledged that the Chinese government has engaged in industrial espionage and stolen American research. They noted that the crackdown comes amid a trade war with China and said there could be benign explanations for the alleged misdeeds of the three scientists.
Lambert, the postdoctoral researcher at the Whitehead Institute and specialist in cancer biology, cited as one example the allegation that Zheng tried to leave the country with vials of cells.
He said it was not unheard of for scientists to take laboratory cells on airliners to save on shipping costs, although he acknowledged that it sounded from news accounts that Zheng "was trying to directly replicate something that was done here.”
Shortly after Zheng’s arrest, another Harvard-affiliated institution, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, issued a memo warning doctors and researchers there not to take biological materials on airliners. Researchers with legitimate reasons to ship biological materials overseas can do so by getting authorization from the hospital and government authorities, the memo said.
“I certainly understand the argument that to maintain competitiveness, we can’t let people steal everything,” Lambert said. “My concern is that this will push people away from doing science in the United States. People from other countries might fear a hostile environment here."
The FBI and federal agencies that fund science and health research in US universities have warned that the country’s open higher education system is being exploited by foreign governments.
NIH has opened more than 180 investigations into potential violations involving foreign influence in US research, the Globe reported in December.
Peter Zeidenberg, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., said this week that NIH has sent thousands of letters to universities asking for information about faculty members and researchers with federal funding who are believed to have links to foreign governments. He said some of those faculty members and researchers have made innocent mistakes and gotten into trouble with the federal government.
“The institutions are petrified about losing grant money,” he said. “It’s their lifeblood, and they’re tossing these professors under the bus."
Zeidenberg said he has represented almost 50 scientists who have had their homes or offices searched by federal authorities. Most have not been charged. All have been of Chinese origin.
Despite this week’s charges, several prominent scientists in Massachusetts said they are not concerned that researchers from China or other countries might steal research and take it overseas.
Robert Langer, the prolific inventor and entrepreneur whose laboratory at MIT has obtained or applied for roughly 1,400 patents worldwide, said he has overseen a number of talented Chinese-born researchers.
His lab’s research is published in peer-reviewed journals like Science and Nature for anyone to read, he said, and scientific discoveries are patented.
If Chinese scientists sought to take his lab’s research and market it, Langer said, patent lawyers would go after them.
Still, the crackdown has prompted many colleges and universities to review their policies on foreign business dealings and to tighten them.
“International collaboration and open science is so much an important part of what we do,” said Gloria Waters, vice president and associate provost for research at Boston University. But she added that “we take the concerns of the federal government seriously.”