Harvard chemist on trial: a guide to the Charles Lieber case

Charles Lieber arrives at a federal courthouse in Boston, Massachusetts, for his trial.Credit: Brian Snyder/Reuters

A highly-anticipated trial began today for star nanotechnology researcher Charles Lieber, who stands accused by the US government of actions including lying about his involvement in a Chinese government talent-recruitment programme, and failing to disclose income from China on his tax returns. This is the second trial for an academic accused of hiding ties to China since the Department of Justice (DOJ) launched a controversial initiative in 2018 to prevent that country from using US resources for political gain — and legal experts say its verdict might influence the prosecution of future cases.

Lieber, who is on leave as chair of Harvard University’s chemistry and chemical biology department, has pleaded not guilty to all charges. A high-profile researcher known for developing nanomaterials for medicine and biology, he won the 2012 Wolf Prize in Chemistry and was listed as a potential Nobel Prize winner by Thomson Reuters in 2008.

His arrest in January 2020 shocked scientists. “The outcome [of the trial] is important and will be closely watched to see if the government is able to persuade a jury to return convictions for this type of case,” says Peter Zeidenberg, a former federal prosecutor and a partner at the law firm Arent Fox in Washington DC. The first trial of a researcher following the launch of the DOJ’s China Initiative resulted in an acquittal.

A lawyer for Lieber told Nature: “we will do our talking in the courtroom”. But in a court filing, his legal team wrote that “the government will be unable to prove, as to each and every count, that [Lieber] acted knowingly, intentionally, or willfully, or that he made any material false statement”.

The District of Massachusetts US attorney’s office tells Nature it expects Lieber’s trial to continue for about a week. Here’s what to watch for.

What’s the case against Lieber?

A key focus in Lieber’s trial will be on false statements he allegedly made to federal agencies. Prosecutors allege that Lieber lied to or misled the US Department of Defense (DOD) and the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), from which he had received at least US$15 million in grants since 2008. According to the government, he made false statements about participating in a prominent Chinese talent-recruitment programme known as the Thousand Talents Plan, which offered him a monthly salary of up to $50,000, about $158,000 per year in personal and living expenses, and more than $1.5 million in funding for a joint laboratory between Harvard University and the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT). Participating in a foreign talent-recruitment programme is not illegal, but knowingly and willfully making signficant false statements to US government agencies is a crime.

According to a court filing by prosecutors, Lieber allegedly told investigators from the DOD’s Defense Criminal Investigative Service in 2018 he didn’t know how he was characterized by China, but denied ever being explicitly asked to participate in the Thousand Talents programme. The investigators were acting on information from the FBI when they questioned Lieber, the filing said. It also said that the nanotechnology researcher told Harvard administrators that he was not, and had never been, a participant in the programme during a grant-compliance review for the NIH, which in 2018 began scrutinizing potential ties that Harvard and Lieber had to the WUT and Thousand Talents.

But an affidavit by FBI special agent Robert Plumb states that the WUT asked Lieber in 2012 to participate in the programme, that he agreed to a three-year contract and that he was paid over several years in accordance with it.

Legal experts emphasized to Nature that the burden will be on prosecutors to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that, among other things, Lieber knowingly and willfully made false statements. “It appears that the government has e-mails that will be helpful in doing that, but we’ll only see at trial how strong the evidence is,” says Margaret Lewis, a criminal-law specialist at Seton Hall University who studies the China Initiative. “The government does have a burden to do more than just prove that forms were filled out incorrectly. They also have this element of, what was the context, what was happening in professor Lieber’s mind?”

What might happen at trial?

When it comes to the false-statement charges, some expect Lieber’s legal team to argue that he misunderstood what he was being asked during those investigations in 2018. “I would expect that the defense to the charges would be — I’m just guessing — he misunderstood the question, felt that he was giving a truthful answer, forgot, [or] got confused,” says Seth DuCharme, a partner at law firm Bracewell in New York City who is a former senior DOJ official.

Whether Lieber actually received all the benefits promised by the alleged Thousand Talents contract could also affect his sentencing. According to Plumb’s affidavit, the contract Lieber allegedly agreed to allowed a salary of up to $50,000 a month calculated on the basis of the amount of time he spent working at the WUT. Peter Toren, an intellectual-property lawyer in Washington DC, says if Lieber is convicted, the amount of money he ultimately received would probably significantly affect his sentence — the larger the amount, the harsher the sentence.

Why does the outcome of this case matter?

The outcome matters to Lieber personally of course, but it could also have a ripple effect. Many in the research community have been concerned that the US government’s efforts to crack down on foreign interference are harming scientific collaborations and leading to an exodus of researchers of Chinese heritage from the United States. They also worry that there is racial profiling — an accusation that the US government has repeatedly denied. A number of scientists have been calling for an end to the China Initiative, including about 40 of Lieber’s colleagues, who wrote a letter in March asking the government to drop the charges against him.

The Chinese government has also criticized the initiative as politically motivated.

Derek Adams, a partner at Potomac Law Group and former DOJ trial attorney, says that if a researcher as high profile as Lieber is not acquitted, other researchers accused of hiding ties to China might be less willing to fight charges and more willing to take plea deals. “The defendants will see probably that there’s more risk involved,” he says.

On the flip side, if the case is decided in Lieber’s favour, Adams thinks a second loss in court since the launch of the China Initiative could lead the DOJ to rethink its prosecution strategy, decrease the resources and effort it’s spending on these cases, or give defendants more leverage in plea-deal negotiations. The US Congress might also apply pressure to end the China Initiative. On 29 July, representative Ted Lieu and about 90 other members of Congress sent a letter to US Attorney General Merrick Garland requesting a DOJ investigation into historic targeting of individuals of Asian descent for alleged espionage, and information on whether people are being targeted on the basis of race, ethnicity or national origin under the China Initiative. Lieber is one of the exceptions, but an analysis by MIT Technology Review of charges believed to be associated with the China Initiative found that more than 90% of defendants have been of Chinese heritage.

Some even think that if the US government loses its case against Lieber, the outcome could help convince more researchers to stay in the country. “If it leads to another acquittal, it will certainly give a lot of hope to people who are now sitting on the fence and are undecided [about] whether they should leave the United States or not,” says Alice Huang, a biologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and board member of the 80-20 Educational Foundation, an advocacy group for Asian American equality. “It would encourage more of the scientists to stay and fight.”

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Andrew Silver