'He repeatedly lied': Feds pile on as Harvard chemist Charles Lieber convicted of lying about Chinese ties
In a stunning climax to an eye-catching saga, Harvard scientist Charles Lieber has been convicted of lying to the federal government about his ties to China’s Thousand Talents Program.
Following close to three hours of deliberation, a federal jury in Boston found 62-year-old Lieber — a pioneer in medical nanotechnology and the former chair of Harvard’s chemistry department — guilty of all six felony charges, including two counts of making false statements, two counts of filing false tax returns and two counts of failing to disclose a foreign (in this case Chinese) bank account.
The three types of charges carry maximum sentences of five years, three years and five years, respectively, adding up to a 26-year stretch plus hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.
In an email to the Boston Globe, Lieber’s attorney, Marc Mukasey wrote, “We respect the verdict and will keep up the fight.”
Lieber’s arrest back in early 2020 sent shockwaves across the biomedical sphere as it represented the most high-profile case to emerge in the US Department of Justice’s “China Initiative.” Amid escalating US-China tension, the Trump administration began a controversial crackdown on suspected academic espionage and failures to disclose ties with Chinese institutions.
In particular, the federal investigations shed a harsh spotlight on the Thousand Talents Program, a campaign launched by the Chinese government to attract scientists from overseas through funding and other resources. Whereas the program mostly recruited academics of Chinese heritage, some high-profile Western researchers would also be approached with offers, as detailed in the reports about Lieber and former Moffitt Cancer Center CEO Alan List.
For Lieber, his central offenses were concealing a relationship with the Wuhan University of Technology, where he agreed to be a “strategic scientist” and open up a lab in exchange for funding, and participation in Thousand Talents.
“By Charles Lieber’s own admission – after we arrested him – the evidence against him was formidable,” Joseph Bonavolonta, FBI special agent in charge of the Boston division, said in a statement. “He repeatedly lied to his employer, the federal government, and taxpayers to fraudulently maintain access to federal research funds.”
But critics slammed what they see as a witch hunt that puts a negative spin on routine — even previously encouraged — international scientific collaborations and disproportionately punishes scientists for what could simply be honest mistakes or an oversight. In the wake of his prosecution, Lieber was quickly placed on administrative leave. He later sued Harvard for abandoning him.
“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?” Mukasey argued in court, per the Globe. “Almost everyone got what they wanted. The National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense got to keep Dr. Lieber’s grant research; Harvard got to keep their millions of dollars in grant money. The FBI got its big case after working hard one day, but Charlie Lieber got left holding the bag.”
Lieber, who is currently battling lymphoma, told special agents in interrogations that he was also motivated by his desire to win a Nobel Prize.
“I was younger and stupid,” he said in video clips played in court, as reported by the New York Times. “I want to be recognized for what I’ve done. Everyone wants to be recognized.”