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The trial of Charles Lieber is also a test of the China Initiative

A jury will decide if a famed Harvard nanotechnology expert is guilty of concealing his employment by a Chinese university.

December 14, 2021
Charles Lieber leaves Moakley Couthouse
Charles Lieber leaves Moakley Couthouse
REUTERS/Katherine Taylor

A Boston jury will decide if a famed Harvard nanotechnology expert is guilty of concealing his employment by a Chinese university.

In January of 2020, agents arrived at Harvard University looking for Charles Lieber, a renowned nanotechnology researcher who chaired the school’s department of chemistry and chemical biology. They were there to arrest him on charges of hiding his financial ties with a university in China. By arresting Lieber steps from Harvard Yard, authorities were sending a loud message to the academic community: failing to disclose such links is a serious crime.

Now Lieber is set to go on trial beginning December 14 in federal court in Boston. He has pleaded not guilty, and hundreds of academics have signed letters of support. In fact, some critics say it’s the Justice Department’s China Initiative—a far-reaching effort started in 2018 to combat Chinese economic espionage and trade-secret theft—that should be on trial, not Lieber. They are calling the prosecutions fundamentally flawed, a witch hunt that misunderstands the open-book nature of basic science and that is selectively destroying scientific careers over financial misdeeds and paperwork errors without proof of actual espionage or stolen technology.

For their part, prosecutors believe they have a tight case. They allege that Lieber was recruited into China’s Thousand Talents Plan—a program aimed at attracting top scientists—and paid handsomely to establish a research laboratory at the Wuhan University of Technology, but hid the affiliation from US grant agencies when asked about it (read a copy of the indictment here). Lieber is facing six felony charges: two counts of making false statements to investigators, two counts of filing a false tax return, and two counts of failing to report a foreign bank account.

“Simply put, the government will prove that Lieber deliberately made false statements … in order to protect his reputation and career at Harvard University,” prosecutors wrote in a case summary filed last week.

In response, defense attorney Marc Mukasey said the government won’t be able to show that Lieber “acted knowingly, intentionally, or willfully, or that he made any material false statement.”

Lieber is both the highest-profile academic to be charged under the China Initiative and one of only a handful who are not ethnically Chinese.

The case against Lieber could be a bellwether for the government, which has several similar cases pending against US professors alleging that they didn’t disclose their China affiliations to granting agencies.

Andrew Lelling, the former US attorney for the District of Massachusetts who served on the China Initiative steering committee before leaving the federal government for private practice, said he wouldn’t comment on any individual cases, but he did say he expects the government to be successful in prosecuting cases like Lieber’s going forward.

“My view is that the research integrity cases usually result in a win by the government. They’ve been slowed tremendously because of covid, so you have a lot of unresolved cases, but I think you’re going to see that the government wins most of those,” Lelling told MIT Technology Review.

The China Initiative

The China Initiative was announced in 2018 by Jeff Sessions, then the Trump administration’s attorney general, as a central component of the administration’s tough stance toward China.

An MIT Technology Review investigation published earlier this month found that the China Initiative is an umbrella for various types of prosecutions somehow connected to China, with targets ranging from a Chinese national who ran a turtle-smuggling ring to state-sponsored hackers believed to be behind some of the biggest data breaches in history. In total, MIT Technology Review identified 77 cases brought under the initiative; of those, a quarter have led to guilty pleas or convictions, but nearly two-thirds remain pending.

The government’s prosecution of researchers like Lieber for allegedly hiding ties to Chinese institutions has been the most controversial, and fastest-growing, aspect of the government’s efforts. In 2020, half of the 31 new cases brought under the China Initiative were cases against scientists or researchers. These cases largely did not accuse the defendants of violating the Economic Espionage Act.

This past fall, hundreds of academics across the country, from institutions including Stanford University and Princeton University, signed a letter calling on Attorney General Merrick Garland to end the China Initiative. The initiative, they wrote, has drifted from its original mission of combating Chinese intellectual-property theft and is instead harming American research competitiveness by discouraging scholars from coming to or staying in the US.

Among the cases that have resulted in guilty pleas:

  • Xiao-Jiang Li, a former Emory University professor who studied genetics, pleaded guilty to a single count of filing a false tax return in May 2020. He was sentenced to a year of probation and ordered to pay $30,000 in restitution. He is now a researcher for China’s National Academy of Sciences.
  • Song Guo Zheng, a former Ohio State University professor, pleaded guilty in November 2020 to a single count of making false statements to investigators about his affiliation with a Chinese university and the Thousand Talents Plan. Zheng, who studied autoimmune disorders, was sentenced to 37 months in prison last summer and ordered to pay roughly $4 million in restitution to the National Institutes of Health and to his former employer.

After Zheng’s sentencing, prosecutors said they hoped his fate would serve as a message to other academics. “We hope Zheng’s prison sentence deters others from having anything to do with China’s so-called ‘Thousand Talents Plan’ or any of its variations,” said Vipal J. Patel, acting US attorney for the Southern District of Ohio.

Science on trial

Lieber’s case is the second China Initiative prosecution of an academic to end up in the courtroom. The only previous person to face trial on research integrity charges, University of Tennessee–Knoxville professor Anming Hu, was acquitted of all charges by a judge in June after a deadlocked jury led to a mistrial.

There are five other pending cases in our database involving research integrity charges against US university professors. (For a list of the research integrity cases, click here. For the full China Initiative database, click here.)

These include the case of Gang Chen, an MIT professor arrested at Boston's Logan Airport in 2020, who is also charged with deceiving grant agencies and failing to declare a foreign bank account. (MIT, which is paying for Chen’s defense, says the main collaboration at issue was in fact a formal agreement it had entered into.)

Nanowires

Lieber, now on paid administrative leave from Harvard, ran a prominent lab that specialized in building silicon nanowires into electronics, lasers, and even a neural mesh that could be injected into the brain as a brain-computer interface.

Lieber’s 2015 paper introducing the neural mesh was typical of his lab’s output in that nearly everyone on it—10 of 13 authors—had a Chinese name. They were Harvard PhD students and postdocs, many of whom had been recruited from mainland China for demanding roles in cutting-edge chemistry and were being trained as the next generation of scientists.

David Liu, a specialist in gene editing who is also a professor in Harvard’s chemistry department, said he had not kept up with Lieber’s legal situation. “But I will say that aside from being a world-class scientist,” he says, “Charlie was a kind and devoted mentor to students and junior colleagues, and someone who worked tirelessly and selflessly to help others.”

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