After Charles Lieber of Harvard University became the first academic convicted at trial under the Justice Department’s China Initiative, the former prosecutor who brought the case said the government should stop targeting researchers and focus on cases involving espionage and the theft of trade secrets.
Andrew Lelling, the former US attorney for Massachusetts, said that the prosecution of about two dozen academics across the country as part of a crackdown launched by the Trump administration in 2018 was justified, but that the government needed to reassess its strategy moving forward after achieving “general deterrence among academic researchers.”
“I think the government should contain its efforts with regard to trade secret theft and economic espionage, but step back from targeting researchers, step back from what we call research integrity cases,” Lelling said Wednesday, referring to omissions such as failures to fully disclose foreign affiliations on forms.
Lieber, 62, a world-renowned nanoscientist and former chairman of Harvard’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, received more than $15 million in research grants from the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health. But he failed to disclose he had received payments from Wuhan University of Technology for participating in a program created by the Chinese government to recruit high-level scientists, according to evidence presented during a week-long trial in federal court in Boston.
A jury found him guilty Tuesday of making false statements to the government, filing false tax returns, and failing to file reports disclosing he had a bank account in China.
After the verdict, Joseph R. Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston division, said it “reinforces our commitment to protect our country’s position as a global leader in research and innovation and to hold those accountable who exploit and undermine that position through dishonesty.”
He added, “The FBI will not hesitate to work with our law enforcement partners to focus on those who put their financial and professional interests ahead of our country’s economic prosperity.”
The verdict was a resounding victory for the Justice Department, which has gone to trial against only two academics under the China Initiative, a campaign designed to prevent the communist nation from stealing US trade secrets and technology.
The other case ended with an acquittal. Of the approximately two dozen academics prosecuted under the initiative, eight have had their cases dismissed and eight have pleaded guilty, according to Law360, a legal news service.
Lelling’s call for a reassessment of the initiative comes amid criticism from scientists, researchers, and academics who say it has discouraged collaboration among US scientists and those from other countries, particularly China.
It’s unclear what effect, if any, Lieber’s conviction will have on upcoming cases. A trial date has yet to be scheduled for Gang Chen, an MIT mechanical engineering professor who was indicted in January on wire fraud and tax violations for allegedly failing to disclose his financial ties to China.
Federal prosecutors allege that Chen, 56, a naturalized US citizen who was born in China, failed to disclose contracts, appointments, and awards from various entities in China when applying for a grant from the US Department of Energy.
In court filings, investigators allege Chen received $29 million of foreign funding, including $19 million from China’s Southern University of Science and Technology, or SUSTech.
But in a letter to the university community after Chen’s indictment, MIT president L. Rafael Reif said that MIT and SUSTech had agreed to collaborate in 2018. The arrangement called for the Chinese university to provide $25 million to MIT over five years, including $19 million for “collaborative research and educational activities.”
“While Professor Chen is its inaugural MIT faculty director, this is not an individual collaboration; it is a departmental one, supported by the institute,” Reif said. “These funds are about advancing the work of a group of colleagues, and the research and educational mission of MIT.”
Brian T. Kelly, a lawyer who represents Chen, said in a statement that Lieber’s conviction “doesn’t change anything for professor Chen — they are different cases with different facts,” and that Chen “didn’t lie to anyone and there’s no evidence that he did.”
Unlike Chen, Lieber was not supported by Harvard and sued the school in an unsuccessful effort to force it to pay for his legal defense after his January 2020 arrest. Harvard said he had failed to disclose his ties to the Chinese university or recruitment program
Lieber didn’t take the stand, yet his own words provided the strongest evidence against him. Prosecutors played video clips from an interview with two FBI agents the day of his arrest.
“That’s pretty damning,” Lieber told the agents when they confronted him with a five-year agreement he had signed in 2011 with the Wuhan university, which agreed to pay him up to $50,000 a month, plus $158,000 in living expenses. He also agreed to set up a joint Harvard-Wuhan research lab at the Chinese university and participate in the Chinese government’s Thousand Talents Program, according to documents presented at trial.
The prominent recruitment program is designed to attract high-level scientific talent to help the country’s development, and US officials say they have discovered participants who downloaded sensitive electronic research files before returning to China,
Harvard officials testified that they were unaware of Lieber’s arrangement and hadn’t authorized the Wuhan university to use Harvard’s name on the lab. Lieber told the agents his role as a “strategic scientist” was to help the university elevate its standing and help students have their research work published.
During the FBI interview, Lieber admitted that he was paid $10,000 to $20,000 in cash each time he visited Wuhan, which he carried home to Lexington and failed to report to the IRS. He estimated he was paid more than $50,000, but less than $100,000. Lieber said he was paid additional money that was deposited into a Chinese bank account he never touched.
Lieber told the agents that he was motivated not by financial gain but his desire to be recognized for his work.
“This is embarrassing,” Lieber told the agents. “Every scientist wants a Nobel Prize.”
The only defense witness called to testify was Anqi Zhang, who worked in Lieber’s lab at Harvard from 2014 to 2020 when she was a doctoral student. She described him as a devoted scientist who worked long hours, even as he battled cancer, and conducted groundbreaking brain research in an effort to develop treatment for diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and epilepsy.
During his closing remarks, Lieber’s attorney, Marc Mukasey, described Lieber as “the world’s greatest nanoscientist,” and said, “Isn’t it troubling that Dr. Lieber’s work was all public and for the benefit of the world, but he’s facing criminal charges for it?”
But Assistant US Attorney Jason Casey argued that Lieber asked to be paid in cash by the Wuhan university so he didn’t have to pay taxes on the money, and deliberately concealed his arrangement from Harvard. He lied to the government about his participation in the Thousand Talents Program because “he knew if he told the truth his career would be on the line,” Casey said.
Shelley Murphy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.