Harvard’s Lieber convicted in anti-China crackdown

Jury takes three hours to agree nanoscience expert lied about Wuhan ties to sidestep pressure campaign against binational research partnerships

December 22, 2021

In the highest-profile case of the Trump-era crackdown on US scientists working with China, Charles Lieber of Harvard University was convicted in federal court of lying about his research ties in the country.

Professor Lieber, a former chairman of chemistry and chemical biology at the Ivy League institution, was found guilty after five days of testimony and less than three hours of jury deliberations at the federal court in Boston.

As with most other defendants caught up in the government’s campaign, prosecutors made no allegations of espionage or stolen intellectual property. But unlike others who avoided criminal conviction, Professor Lieber openly admitted he had not been honest with government investigators about the money he received from China – several thousand dollars in income and expenses, and more than $1.5 million (£1.1 million) in grants.

Professor Lieber was found guilty on all six felony charges he faced – two concerning false statements and four related to false tax filings. Such charges can bring up to five years in prison, although the 62-year-old nanoscience expert – battling late-stage lymphoma and having no criminal history – is expected to face only a few months.

He was on paid leave from Harvard during the trial. A university spokesman said the institution would not immediately comment on the post-conviction status of Professor Lieber, who held the title of university professor – Harvard’s top academic honour.

The Trump initiative stemmed from bipartisan political concern over the perceived scientific, military and economic threat posed by China and, in particular, the nation’s Thousand Talents Programme for enticing top academic talent to join its ranks.

US university leaders have largely endorsed the need to deter theft of intellectual property, but have increasingly questioned whether the size of the problem within academic labs – where research is meant to be shared – warrants an approach that has led an estimated 1,000 scientists to flee the US.

The Biden administration has given mixed signals about its level of support for that approach. It has largely abandoned the Trump effort and allowed prosecutors to drop some cases. Yet in the first case to reach trial, it backed prosecutors persisting with allegations of paperwork violations against Anming Hu, a Chinese-born professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville whose prosecution was later thrown out by a federal judge as having little merit.

And one of the prominent witnesses against Professor Lieber in his trial was Michael Lauer, the top official in charge of academic grant awards at the National Institutes of Health, the leading US funder of basic academic science. Dr Lauer told the jury that the NIH would have investigated Professor Lieber if it had known of his alleged involvement with the Thousand Talents Programme.

Professor Lieber’s defenders presented him as a scientist unconcerned with global politics who tried to avoid steps that might end a collaboration he saw as beneficial for humanity and for himself personally. His research work involved the development of tiny electronic chips that could be injected into the human body to help people with such conditions as blindness or paralysis.

The professor admitted to FBI investigators, however, that he hoped a cohort of international allies could not only advance his science but help him win a Nobel prize. “Every scientist wants to win a Nobel prize,” he told the investigators in videos of his initial FBI interrogation played in court.

Professor Lieber’s relationship with China began in 2011 and focused on the Wuhan University of Technology, at the same time his Harvard team was receiving millions of dollars in NIH and Pentagon funding. Such dual support is legal, but must be reported to US government officials.

In the FBI interrogation – done after his January 2020 arrest and without a lawyer despite his initial request for one – Professor Lieber denied being paid by Wuhan. He then reversed course after being presented with evidence, and described taking home between $50,000 (£40,000) and $100,000 in $100 bills stuffed into his luggage.

Professor Lieber has been suing Harvard over its refusal to fund his defence. The neighbouring Massachusetts Institute of Technology, by contrast, has backed Gang Chen, a mechanical engineering professor also arrested on charges of failing to disclose financial ties to China while holding US government grant funding.


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Reader's comments (2)

Obviously not too big to fail ...
The article is deceptive in many ways. What really sunk him was the fact that he failed to report the income and also foreign bank accounts. As a US citizen he had to report his bank account details (using what is known as FBAR). He is also required to account for all of his world-wide income, no matter the source. There are significant penalties in both cases and your US tax return is linked to these FBAR filings. In his case, the issue was compounded by the fact that he was failing to report COI w/r to his grants (again something all of us must do -- and if you have a question, err on the side of caution). Here is another case that led to jail time that had nothing to do with China. https://www.comp-matters.com/article.php?id=173163