Trying to explain to two FBI agents why he had agreed to collaborate with a lesser-known Chinese university had gone wrong, Charles Lieber, one of the country’s top research chemists, sat miserably in a chair at the Harvard Police Department, trying to explain to them why he had agreed to collaborate with a lesser-known Chinese university had gone wrong and landed him in trouble with the United States government.
According to Dr. Lieber during the interview, which was filmed and exhibited in court, the university had money to spend — “that’s one of the things China does to attempt to lure individuals,” he said.
However, he claims that money was not the driving force for his decision. By teaching new scientists how to utilise technology that he had pioneered, he was hoping to improve his standing with the committee that chooses who would be awarded the greatest scientific accolade.
Dr. Lieber was found guilty on two counts of making false statements to the United States government about whether he participated in the Thousand Talents Plan, a programme designed by the Chinese government to attract foreign-educated scientists to China, by a federal jury on Tuesday after deliberating for two hours and 45 minutes. They also found him guilty of failing to record money made in China as well as failing to notify a Chinese bank account to the Internal Revenue Service.
The date for sentence has not yet been established. An individual who is convicted of making false statements faces a maximum punishment of five years in prison. Dr. Lieber, who is suffering from cancer, sat still during the six-day trial and said nothing as he walked out of the courtroom with his wife afterward.
Although it is not unlawful for scientists to engage in Chinese recruiting programmes, they are expected to report their involvement to the United States government, which finances their research and may consider their participation to be a conflict of interest.
Cases against university researchers have been initiated in recent years, with the majority of them, such as the one against Dr. Lieber, alleging failure to declare Chinese funding instead of espionage or intellectual property theft. The endeavour has been characterised as prosecutorial overreach.
A sequence of setbacks occurred throughout the summer, with half a dozen charges being dropped and the first case to reach the trial stage, against the researcher Anming Hu, being acquitted on the first day of the trial. Dr. Lieber’s trial was carefully followed in scientific circles, since it served as a predictor of whether the Justice Department would pursue indictments against other researchers in the future.
Dr. Lieber’s case stands apart, according to Peter Zeidenberg, a Washington, D.C. attorney who represents over a dozen academics who are now under investigation. Dr. Lieber was directly questioned about his involvement in the Chinese programme, and he refused to answer.
Dr. Lieber’s attorney, Marc Mukasey, said in closing arguments on Tuesday that the prosecution lacked sufficient evidence of misconduct and that the government was risking silencing a pioneering scholar.
Added the author, “There were no villains or victims, and no one was robbed or made wealthy, yet during the course of a few seconds of talk — Special Agent Mousseau termed it “a blip on the radar,” — “the most famous and most accomplished nanoscientist in the world is facing several charges.”
Dr. Lieber is by far the most well-known of the scholars who have been prosecuted as part of the China Initiative. He has been appointed as head of Harvard’s department of chemistry and chemical biology and is considered a future Nobel Prize winner by some.
The Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health have awarded his Harvard laboratory a total of $18 million in research funding since 2008, according to prosecutors.
He attempted to persuade the two special agents that a different motivation, namely the desire for renown, had motivated him to join with Wuhan and train scientists in the Chinese capital.
With a self-deprecating grin, he admitted that a reward he had just received was more in the range of a bronze medal.