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Nobel Prize winners and other scientists come to defense of Harvard professor Charles Lieber

Harvard University professor Charles Lieber leaves the Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston on Jan. 30, 2020.
Harvard University professor Charles Lieber leaves the Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston on Jan. 30, 2020.Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe

Seven Nobel Prize winners and dozens of other scientists are publicly questioning the federal government’s prosecution of Harvard professor Charles Lieber and criticizing the university for failing to defend him against charges that he hid his ties to a Chinese government recruitment program.

A letter signed by 40 academics from across the country, including several at Harvard, calls the government’s case against Lieber “unjust.” It also suggests that US scientists are becoming increasingly vocal in opposing the government’s crackdown on academics with financial and research ties to China.

In January, dozens of scientists signed off on a letter criticizing the arrest of MIT professor Gang Chen, who was indicted on wire fraud and tax violations in failing to disclose his financial ties to China.

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Lieber, a world-renowned Harvard nanoscientist, was arrested a year ago and is alleged to have lied to the federal authorities about his involvement in a Chinese talent recruitment program and cheating on his taxes.

“Despite his standing in the scientific community — or perhaps because of it — he has become the target of a tragically misguided government campaign that is discouraging US scientists from collaborating with peers in other countries, particularly China,” the letter in support of Lieber states. “In so doing, it is threatening not only the United States’ position as a world leader in academic research, but science itself.”

Lieber was the most high-profile scientist arrested by federal prosecutors in a campaign to curb academic espionage. These cases were a priority for Massachusetts federal prosecutors under the leadership of Andrew E. Lelling, the former US attorney, who stepped down at the end of February.

Over the past few years, the US government has fined universities and arrested academics for failing to properly disclose their financial ties to China. Federal prosecutors have alleged that these collaborations are an attempt by China to siphon cutting-edge technology and intellectual property from the United States.

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Lieber has pleaded not guilty to the charges. US scholars have said that the Justice Department’s aggressive pursuit of these cases fails to understand that research is shared across national boundaries and breakthroughs are only possible if they work together.

But during the Trump administration, scientists were reluctant to publicly speak out, fearing that their government research funding would be at risk and their own international partnerships could be questioned.

Stuart Schreiber, a Harvard chemistry and chemical biology professor who started the public letter in support of Lieber, said that academics are more hopeful about the Biden administration’s approach to science.

“This past year has had a chilling effect on scientists,” Schreiber said. “The aggressiveness of the DOJ in particular, had undeniably an impact. There was great concern for Charles Lieber, but it’s only natural that many scientists have concern for their own research.”

Schreiber said he has been disappointed that Harvard did not defend Lieber, who was the former chair of the university’s chemistry department.

Lieber has filed a lawsuit in Middlesex Superior Court against Harvard arguing that the university is contractually obligated to indemnify him in advance for legal bills linked to his university work. A judge has taken the matter under advisement after a hearing on Monday.

In court documents, Harvard has said that Lieber’s “lies and omissions” about his work in China caused the university to give the US government inaccurate information, and that his legal expenses are not the university’s obligation.

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Lieber’s conduct violated Harvard’s policies, which limit work at other universities and bar the use of the Harvard brand without university approval, which the professor allegedly did when he launched a lab in China, according to court documents.

Harvard declined to comment on Monday.

According to federal investigators, a professor at a Chinese university approached Lieber in 2011, leading Lieber to travel to China’s Wuhan University of Technology, where he signed an agreement paying him $50,000 a month and $158,000 in living expenses. He also allegedly received $1.5 million to set up a research lab at the Chinese university.

Lieber allegedly failed to disclose the information to both Harvard and the federal government and also allegedly failed to comply with Internal Revenue Service regulations on overseas payments.

In the past, scholars would face disciplinary action from their university or additional training if they made reporting errors, the letter in support of Lieber states.

“Now, the government has placed the entire onus on individual faculty and criminalized them — making scientists fearful of the international collaboration that drives so much progress,” according to the letter.

Schreiber said he has seen the chilling affect on science play out at his own lab. Recently, a promising Chinese postdoctoral scholar who could have landed a job as a professor at a top American university because of his extensive research opted instead to return home to China. In the past, the path for an ambitious young scientist from China was to stay in the United States and build a life here, but this researcher was worried that the climate had become too unwelcoming, Schreiber said.

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“Everyone tried hard to convince him that things would improve . . . in the end he was not comfortable doing that,” Schreiber said. “It’s a brain-drain in the opposite direction and there are national implications.”

The letter has been signed by several high profile scientists, including Roger Kornberg, a professor in medicine at Stanford University and 2006 Nobel Prize winner; Fraser Stoddart, a 2016 Nobel Prize winner and a chemistry professor at Northwestern University; and MIT professor Bob Langer, who leads one of the largest academic biomedical engineering research labs in the world.



Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.