University-Industry Engagement Week

Harvard researcher Charles Lieber found guilty of all charges related to Chinese research funding

By David Schwartz
Published: January 10th, 2022

If you were away from your news feed over the holidays, you may have missed the news that Charles Lieber, the former chair of Harvard University’s chemistry department, was convicted of all six felony charges he faced related to millions of dollars in funding he received from China. Lieber, who is living with late-stage lymphoma, faces a sentence of up to 26 years in prison and up to $1.2 million in fines.

Lieber was convicted on two counts of making false statements to federal authorities, two counts of filing a false income tax return, and two counts of failing to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts with the IRS. He was arrested in January 2020 for concealing his affiliation with the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) in China from both Harvard and the U.S. government agencies that funded his work. Harvard has placed him on paid administrative leave since his arrest, but those payments are expected to cease with the conviction.

He served as the PI of his own research group at Harvard, which received more than $15 million in federal research grants between 2008 and 2019. But Lieber never informed the university that he had become a “strategic scientist” at WUT and from 2012-2015 was a contractual participant in China’s Thousand Talents recruitment program, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

Under the terms of his three-year Thousand Talents contract, WUT paid Lieber a salary of up to $50,000 per month, living expenses of up to $150,000 and awarded him more than $1.5 million to establish a research lab at WUT, the DOJ said. But he failed to disclose that income to the IRS. Lieber’s guilty verdicts came after less than three hours of jury deliberation, following a six-day trial.

“There is now no question that Charles Lieber lied to federal investigators and to Harvard in an attempt to hide his participation in the Chinese Thousand Talents Program,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Nathaniel Mendell. “He lied to the IRS about the money he was paid, and he concealed his Chinese bank account from the United States.”

Earlier this year, dozens of prominent researchers — including Nobel Prize winners and Harvard colleagues — came to Lieber’s defense, calling the DOJ’s case against him “unjust” and urging the agency to drop it.

After the verdict, MIT materials scientist Yoel Fink said the prosecution of Lieber was a case a over-reach, and his “petty crimes” deserved a much softer sentence. The DOJ’s continuing focus on Chinese ties among U.S.-funded researchers, he said, is hurting U.S. research competitiveness. The U.S. is “effectively cannibalizing its own scientific research environment by turning the machinery of crime busting and bureaucracy onto our halls of education and science,” he asserted.

Source: Chemistry World

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