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Guilty verdict for Charles Lieber leaves concerns about the China Initiative

Questions remain about academic research security prosecutions

by Neil Savage, special to C&EN
December 30, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 1


Charles Lieber, wearing a surgical mask, walks into court in Boston.
Charles Lieber arrives at the federal courthouse in Boston on Dec. 14.

Harvard University chemistry professor Charles M. Lieber is guilty of tax offenses and making false statements to investigators regarding working with a university in China, a jury determined Dec. 21. Many people were already questioning the value and direction of the China Initiative, the US Department of Justice program under which Lieber was investigated, and the verdict did nothing to resolve their concerns.

The trial took 6 days, and the jury deliberated for less than 3 h before reaching its verdict. It convicted Lieber on all counts—two for filing fraudulent tax returns, two for failing to disclose a bank account in China, and two for making false statements.

The charges centered on Lieber accepting payments from Wuhan University of Technology, allegedly as part of China’s Thousand Talents Program for recruiting scientific expertise, but not disclosing those payments to US funding agencies or the Internal Revenue Service. Each count carries a maximum penalty of several years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. A sentencing hearing has not been set.

Lieber is the first person charged under the China Initiative to be convicted by a jury. The initiative was launched under former president Donald J. Trump and US attorney general Jeff Sessions to uncover national security threats in the form of intellectual property theft and economic espionage. Other academic researchers charged under the program have reached plea agreements with prosecutors, and several cases have been dismissed. Still others, such as cases against University of Kansas chemical engineer Feng “Franklin” Tao and Massachusetts Institute of Technology nanotechnologist Gang Chen, are pending. All the charges involve tax crimes or disclosure requirements. In no case has anyone been charged with espionage.

Investigators believe the verdict vindicates their pursuit of Lieber and others. “We expect professors like Dr. Lieber who are privileged to be part of taxpayer-funded research to be honest in their actions,” Philip M. Coyne, special agent in charge of the US Department of Health and Human Services’ office of inspector general, said after the verdict a statement issued by the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts. “Today’s conviction demonstrates OIG’s commitment to ensuring that taxpayer dollars are not wasted, and that those handling these funds are truthful in their dealings with federal agencies.”

Neither Lieber’s lead attorney, Marc Mukasey, nor Harvard, which placed Lieber on paid leave when he was arrested in 2020, responded to a request for comment.

Others question the value of turning US government resources against academic researchers, citing a possible chilling effect on international scientific collaborations and the concern that Chinese scientists in the US are being targeted for their ethnicity.

Yoel Fink, a materials scientist at MIT, says the China Initiative is taking tools—such as wire fraud statutes and email intercepts—designed to combat drug cartels, terrorists, and industrial spies, and turning them on teachers, wasting resources that could be used to combat serious wrongdoing. “The US public should be very concerned about using these sophisticated weapons against ordinary citizens,” says Fink, who organized a letter signed by more than 200 MIT faculty supporting Chen and criticizing the initiative. Lieber “made a number of mistakes he should probably pay a price for,” Fink says, but he questions whether the prosecution was proportional.

They used the language of espionage, that there were spies at college campuses stealing taxpayer-funded research.
George Varghese, attorney, WilmerHale

George Varghese, a partner at the law firm WilmerHale who spent 14 years as an assistant US attorney in Boston, says the verdict was “as expected,” given that Lieber admitted in an interview with the Federal Bureau of Investigation—video of which jurors saw during the trial—that he had carried as much as $20,000 in cash back from China and never reported it. But Varghese says the charges in this and other cases don’t match what the China Initiative purported to be about. “They used the language of espionage, that there were spies at college campuses stealing taxpayer-funded research,” he says. “The government has yet to prove the premise.”

Varghese and others at his law firm have questioned the credibility of the China Initiative, pointing in particular to seven cases that judges dismissed. That number of dismissals is “extraordinary,” Varghese says, given that federal prosecutors tend to win their cases. He also notes that Andrew Lelling, one of the architects of the initiative as US attorney for Massachusetts under Trump and Sessions, commented recently that the project has lost focus and should probably no longer pursue research integrity cases.

That Lieber was convicted for activities in 2013 to 2015 has some scientists worried about the federal government looking for past mistakes, says Margaret Lewis, a professor at Seton Hall University School of Law and another critic of the initiative. She would like the government to institute a “cure period,” in which researchers could voluntarily disclose ties they hadn’t reported, without penalty. That could sort out innocent mistakes from deliberate wrongdoing and help alleviate the chilling effect of the investigations, Lewis says. She would also like the name “China Initiative” changed immediately, to help reassure scientists who feel they’re being targeted because of their ethnicity.

Holden Thorp, a chemistry professor at Washington University in St. Louis and editor in chief of the Science family of journals, says the federal pursuit of scientists transferring research to China has been a waste of resources. “Most of the people that they have gone after have been people doing honest and important scientific collaborations with scientists in China, and that’s something that we desperately need if we’re going to move science forward,” Thorp says. “No country can do it by itself, and there are a lot of great scientists in China that we need to collaborate with.”

Thorp believes Lieber saw his involvement with China as an opportunity to advance science and just got in too deep. “It’s hard to think of a more prominent person that got caught up in something like this,” he says. “It’s really sad.”



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