What Charles Lieber's conviction means for science – Nature.com

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Harvard chemist Charles Lieber leaves a courthouse in Boston, Massachusetts, during the week of his trial in December.Credit: Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty
Next week will mark two years since Harvard University chemist and nanotechnology pioneer Charles Lieber was arrested on allegations of lying to US federal authorities about his financial ties to China. Last month, a jury convicted him of making false statements, as well as related tax offences. Researchers say that the high-profile US criminal case is already having an impact on the scientific community. It marks the second time an academic researcher has been tried on accusations of hiding ties to China since the US Department of Justice (DOJ) launched its controversial ‘China Initiative’ to root out threats to national security.

Harvard chemist on trial: a guide to the Charles Lieber case
“I think it makes clear to academic researchers the importance of fully and honestly disclosing the research funding they’re getting from sources to federal agencies when they’re applying for awards,” says Tobin Smith, vice-president for science policy and global affairs at the Association of American Universities in Washington DC, of which Harvard — in Cambridge, Massachusetts — is a member. “Transparency is critical to ensuring the integrity of scientific research.”
Lieber, whom Harvard placed on paid leave after his arrest, was principal investigator of a research team that received more than US$15 million in federal grants from agencies including the US Department of Defense (DOD) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) between 2008 and 2019. During the trial, prosecutors asserted that he had lied to or misled the DOD and the NIH about his participation in a Chinese government programme called the Thousand Talents Plan, intended to attract researchers from overseas. The prosecutors said that as part of Lieber’s Thousand Talents contract, the Wuhan University of Technology agreed to pay the scientist a salary of up to $50,000 per month, plus living expenses and funds for starting up a laboratory. They also asserted that he didn’t report income from the Wuhan University of Technology or disclose a bank account in China with a balance exceeding $10,000 during two calendar years to the Internal Revenue Service.
Ultimately, a federal jury found Lieber guilty on two counts of filing a false tax return, two counts of failing to file a report of foreign bank and financial accounts, and two counts of making false statements to federal authorities.
Unsurprisingly, Lieber’s prosecution has had a significant impact on his laboratory and colleagues, researchers say. According to sources Nature spoke to, Lieber’s research group has dispersed; students and postdoctoral researchers who were based in his lab at the time of his arrest have since moved to other positions. Harvard has declined to comment on the status of Lieber’s team.
Anqi Zhang, a former student in Lieber’s lab who is now a postdoctoral materials-science researcher at Stanford University in California, says Lieber was a good mentor and devoted scientist committed to his work. She testified as a witness for his defence during the trial and did not expect him to be convicted. “I just feel really sorry that he has to go through this,” she says.

Harvard chemistry chief’s arrest over China links shocks researchers
Others have been more critical. “He is a very accomplished scholar who can make very substantial contributions on the one hand, and on the other, it’s a blatant abuse of federal funding and potentially encouraging threats to US prosperity and security,” says Charles Wessner, an innovation-policy researcher at Georgetown University in Washington DC.
A lawyer for Lieber said in a statement to Nature: “Notwithstanding the verdict, Charlie Lieber should be embraced. His impact as a scientist, a researcher and a teacher is undeniable. He still has a lot more to give.”
Some scientists have also pointed to the effect of the case on Lieber’s research. Known for developing revolutionary nanomaterials for medicine and biology, Lieber’s lab has produced innovations that include nanoscale wires that can record electrical signals from live cells such as neurons.
His research being put on hold “is a really huge loss, as he was doing cutting-edge science”, says Kang-Kuen Ni, a physicist who has not collaborated with Lieber but works in Harvard’s chemistry and chemical biology department, which Lieber previously chaired.
After the trial, much was made of the fact that Lieber mentioned during an FBI interrogation that many researchers want to win a Nobel prize. Interrogation footage shown to the jury suggested that this desire was one reason he formed links with China. Neal Lane, a science and technology policy researcher at Rice University in Houston, Texas, doubts that any prestige from a foreign talent-recruitment programme would influence the decision-making of a Nobel committee. But he says that what Lieber probably meant was that his pursuit of a prize was a rationale for accepting money and potentially other resources that could advance his research, such as facilities, equipment or employees.
The DOJ launched the China Initiative in 2018 under the administration of then-president Donald Trump, and has continued it under US President Joe Biden. Researchers have called for an end to the initiative, saying that it has damaged lives because some academics are being falsely accused of crimes. Many also say that it has led to racial profiling, which the US government has denied. “It signals that scientists with any connection to China — past or present — are automatically suspected of wrongdoing,” Lane says.
But there are signs that the government’s stance could be changing. In October last year, US attorney-general Merrick Garland testified before Congress that the DOJ would review the initiative.

Universities are forging ties with the FBI as US cracks down on foreign influence
The government is also working to clarify and simplify how scientists transmit information about foreign ties to federal funding agencies. On 4 January, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy issued guidance on how agencies should implement improved research-security measures that Trump had called for. Trump’s measures called for better standardization of policies and reporting forms concerning conflicts of interest and commitment, and ensuring that consequences for disclosure-requirement violations were appropriate.
Smith is hopeful that the guidance will lead to increased compliance among researchers, and he says it signals that the government is working to provide more clarity about penalties, and ensure that they are appropriate. However, he thinks it might still be necessary to prosecute some researchers. “The key is to get the balance right and make sure the cases that are being brought are legitimate and strong and are really going after people who have done egregious things that are a threat to national security, or who have done things that are wrong,” he says.
Lieber’s prosecution sends a strong signal to US researchers about the importance of disclosure, and could lead them to pay more attention to whom they’re working for, or with, in partnerships with China, Wessner says.
After the trial, Reuters reported that Lieber’s defence team had said it “will keep up the fight”, but the lawyer in question did not respond to a request from Nature for further comment on the verdict. No date has been set for sentencing, according to public court records.

Scientists in China say US government crackdown is harming collaborations
Gabriel Chin, a criminal-law specialist at the University of California, Davis, thinks that Lieber’s contributions to science could be taken into account into his sentencing, but says that it’s not clear whether they will be a benefit or a disadvantage. “It is not as though he was a poor person who needed the money, or that he did not have the intelligence to understand the law, or the resources to hire lawyers to comply with it,” he says. “In addition, his significant scientific contributions and expertise may make his secret association with a foreign power all the more potentially harmful.”
Meanwhile, Lieber has been unsuccessful in an attempt to sue Harvard and compel it to pay for his legal fees. Although the institution has a policy to pay defence costs for some staff members facing legal action related to their university work, one university official determined that Lieber probably violated university policy. On 10 January, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reinforced an earlier ruling by a lower court that Harvard has the right to reject Lieber’s request. However, an attorney representing Lieber in his civil suit told university newspaper The Harvard Crimson: “We disagree with the court’s decision, and are assessing options as to next steps.”
doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-022-00107-5
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