Yesterday, after deliberating for just under three hours, a Boston jury found renowned Harvard chemist and nanoscientist Charles Lieber guilty of lying to the US Defense Department and National Institutes of Health about financial support from a Chinese foreign talent program, reports Science. The verdict, which was unanimous, also convicted Lieber for failing to report income from the program on his federal income tax forms or to disclose a Chinese bank account that was used for the payments.
Through a recruitment initiative known as the Thousand Talents recruitment program that is run by China’s government, in 2011 Lieber spearheaded a joint venture with the Wuhan University of Technology called the WUT-Harvard Joint Nano Key Laboratory. The program afforded him a monthly salary of $50,000, living expenses of $150,000, and lab startup funds of more than $1.5 million, The New York Times reports. He also received millions in research grants from the US Department of Defense and the National institutes of Health for his work in the States. Lieber was arrested in January 2020 and interrogated by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigators for a few hours, during which he denied participating in the Thousand Talents program or receiving income from the Wuhan University of Technology.
In interviews recorded by the FBI, Lieber described himself as “younger and stupid,” calling the situation “embarrassing,” according to STAT. In the videos, he recounts travelling from China to the US with bags of money that he did not report to the Internal Revenue Service, stating that he was motivated by a pursuit of scientific recognition and that, “Every scientist wants a Nobel Prize.”
China’s Thousand Talents recruitment program was developed to attract foreign scientists to China with grants and financial compensation. It came under scrutiny by some US lawmakers and government agencies, which suspected the program was a way to steal sensitive material from America and therefore posed a security threat, The New York Times reported last year.
The case against Lieber arose from the US Department of Justice’s China Initiative, which was implemented three years ago to combat economic espionage. Officials working under the auspices of the program have brought charges against 25 scientists, according to The Wall Street Journal. Many of the targeted researchers have been ethnically Chinese, and the Associated Press reports that multiple academics from high-profile institutions have signed letters to the US attorney general calling for an end to the initiative, arguing that it compromises international research competitiveness and foreign recruitment.
The boundaries demarcating specific countries’ intellectual property are murky in academia, which embraces collaboration and information exchange to propel forward research, according to the Times. According to the newspaper, research university regulations regarding outside employment tend to be loosely defined, and until recently, federal agencies did not prohibit employees from participating in Chinese talent programs. Jon Antilla, an organic chemist who completely relocated his research from the US to Zhejiang Sci-Tech University in China to avoid any legal complications, tells the publication that there are complex and confusing considerations when working in both countries. “There are questions about intellectual property—how do you share data, if you share it at all,” he says.
Nevertheless, Lieber’s charges hinge not on his employment at a Chinese university or participation in the talent program, but on his false statements and concealed information that misled federal agencies about his financial circumstances.
In the wake of the verdict, Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, defended China’s scientific exchange initiatives as “essentially no different from the common practice of other countries, including the U.S.,” reports The Washington Post. “U.S. government institutions and politicians should not stigmatize this,” he added. Similarly, Fang Hong of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC, tells The New York Times that, “It is extremely irresponsible and ill intentioned to link individual behaviors to China’s talent plan.”
According to Science, Lieber’s lawyer Marc Mukasey asserts in a statement that, “We respect the jury’s verdict but will keep fighting.” Lieber could face up to five years in federal prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.