fb-pixel Skip to main content

Harvard professor accused of hiding ties to Chinese talent program goes to trial

Charles Lieber, a world-renowned nanoscientist and the chairman of Harvard University’s chemistry and chemical biology department.Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe

In a case that has drawn international scrutiny, Harvard University professor and world-renowned nanoscientist Charles Lieber is scheduled to go to trial Tuesday in federal court in Boston on charges that he lied about his financial ties to a Chinese university and talent recruitment program and cheated on his taxes.

The case sprang from the government’s effort to crack down on suspected espionage and scientific theft, but Lieber’s supporters say he has been unfairly targeted as part of a sweeping campaign that is discouraging US scientists from collaborating with their peers in other countries, particularly China.

Lieber was chairman of Harvard’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology when he was charged last year with lying about his relationship with Wuhan University of Technology in China and the Thousand Talents Program, created by the Chinese government more than a decade ago to recruit high-level scientists.

Advertisement



Prosecutors allege that in 2011, Lieber signed a five-year agreement with the Chinese university, which agreed to pay him $50,000 a month and $158,000 in living expenses. He also allegedly received $1.5 million to set up a joint Harvard-Wuhan research lab at the Chinese university.

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

At the time, Lieber was the principal investigator for the Lieber Research Group at Harvard, which received more than $15 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense and was required to disclose funding received from foreign institutions or governments, according to court filings.

Lieber, 62, who has been on paid administrative leave since his arrest in January 2020, faces a six-count indictment, which includes charges that he made false statements, filed false tax returns for 2013 and 2014, and failed to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts.

Advertisement



Jury selection is scheduled to begin Tuesday morning before US District Judge Rya Zobel, followed by opening statements.

In a trial brief, Assistant US Attorneys Jason Casey and James Drabick wrote that the government will prove at trial that Lieber deliberately made false statements about his participation in the Thousand Talents Program and Wuhan University of Technology “to protect his reputation and career at Harvard University (including by preserving his ability to receive federal research funding.)”

Lieber’s lawyers declined to comment on the case.

“We will do our talking in the courtroom " one of Lieber’s attorneys, Marc Mukasey of New York, said in an e-mail Monday.

Lieber was battling follicular lymphoma, a blood cancer for which there is no cure, at the time of his arrest and continues that struggle, according to his attorneys.

In their trial brief, Lieber’s lawyers wrote “the government will be unable to prove, as to each and every count, that he acted knowingly, intentionally, or willfully, or that he made any material false statement.” They said the government proposes to present 123 email exchanges, including 93 that appear to reflect communication between Lieber and an e-mail address that can’t be attributed to anyone on the government’s witness list.

In a public letter of support in March, 40 academics, including seven Nobel prize winners and other scientists, called Lieber’s indictment unjust and wrote, ”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.”

Advertisement



Lieber is among a number of scientists and researchers who have been indicted as a result of the China Initiative, a campaign launched by the Justice Department in 2018 to disrupt China’s attempts to steal and acquire American research, technology, and talent to gain a global economic advantage, according to authorities.

Former US attorney Andrew Lelling, who brought the case against Lieber, declined to comment on the specifics of Lieber’s case on Monday. He said the goal of the initiative “was to sensitize the public to the national security threat posed by the Chinese government and to do that through outreach and through doing trade secret theft cases and these cases in academia.”

However, he said, “One of the downsides you are now seeing about the China Initiative when it comes to academia is it is having an extensive chilling effect on collaboration with Chinese counterparts and in the long term that’s problematic.”

He defended the cases that have been brought as part of the initiative but said he believed in the future the government should and will focus more on economic espionage cases.

“The government should step back a bit, reassess which of these cases are worth bringing, and put more emphasis on regulatory guidance,” Lelling said. “The academic community has gotten the message, so what’s the point in prosecuting 23 more academics?”

Advertisement



Lieber’s attorneys wrote in court filings that his case “has nothing to do with the history of China’s economy or the Chinese government’s technology acquisition program. Professor Lieber is not charged with unlawfully transferring any technology or proprietary information to China.”


Shelley Murphy can be reached at shelley.murphy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.