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Senator Marco Rubio Urges Small Business Administration to Re-Examine Grant Policies in Wake of Lieber Arrest

The United States Capitol houses both chambers of Congress.
The United States Capitol houses both chambers of Congress. By Caroline S. Engelmayer
By James S. Bikales and Kevin R. Chen, Crimson Staff Writers

In the wake of Harvard Chemistry department chair Charles M. Lieber’s arrest, United States Senator Marco A. Rubio (R-Fla.) urged the U.S. Small Business Administration in February to ensure recipients of its grant programs do not have connections to governments such as China.

Lieber, a renowned nanoscientist, was charged in federal court in January with concealing research funding from the Chinese government and lying to American agencies about his alleged ties to China’s Thousand Talents Plan.

In his letter to SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza, Rubio wrote he is “alarmed” that Lieber was able to advance his research with millions of dollars in funding from the federal Small Business Innovation Research program — which is coordinated by the SBA — while allegedly maintaining ties to the Chinese government.

Rubio urged the SBA to evaluate its grant practices and play an “active role” in ensuring that academics who receive funding from the SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer programs do not have “improper” foreign ties. Rubio requested that Carranza provide information on its oversight processes to the Senate committee he chairs, the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, by March 13.

The company Lieber worked for, Nanosys, Inc., received 16 awards through the SBIR program between 2002 and 2006 for research into “nanosensor and nanowire projects through his lab at Harvard University,” according to Rubio’s letter. The grants — which came from five different government agencies, but were coordinated by the SBA — totaled more than $5.4 million dollars.

The Small Business Association declined to comment on Rubio’s letter. Lieber did not respond to a request for comment.

Nanosys CEO Jason Hartlove wrote in an emailed statement that his company has not had contact with Lieber in “over a decade,” and that Lieber has made “no contributions” to Quantum Dot technology, the sole piece of technology the company has been developing since 2013.

“Nanosys licensed nanowire IP from Harvard developed by Dr. Lieber which we attempted to develop in the early days of the company,” Hartlove wrote. “We divested the nanowire IP and any remaining assets from that program in 2013.”

Rubio also wrote in the letter that he believes universities need to appropriately vet their faculty, who are “competing and bidding for these government resources.”

"I am also concerned about the seeming lack of appropriate due diligence on the part of Harvard University to assess the ties their professors have with foreign entities,” Rubio wrote. “It is imperative that the SBA is playing an active role, to the extent possible, in ensuring this due diligence occurs.”

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment on Rubio’s letter.

According to experts, Lieber’s arrest is part of an ongoing crackdown by the United States government and American universities on “academic espionage,” the transfer of academic research at American universities to foreign governments.

Harvard has placed Lieber on “indefinite” paid administrative leave and is cooperating with federal authorities while it conducts its own review of his conduct, according to Swain.

Lieber was released from jail on $1 million bail on Jan. 31, but he remains barred from Harvard’s campus during the investigation.

Correction: March 3, 2020

A previous version of the headline for this article called the Small Business Administration the Small Business Association.

—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.
— Staff writer Kevin R. Chen can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @kchenx.

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