Hidden research cooperation with China – guilty verdict for US researcher Charles Lieber

The renowned Harvard University in Cambridge (Massachusetts) (picture alliance / dpa)

The jury trial against Charles Lieber ended yesterday in Boston. He prefers to be a Harvard professor and has already been listed as a Nobel Prize candidate for his work on nanomaterials. But in January two years ago, Lieber was arrested on campus. He is said to have hidden connections to China. After five days of trial, the jury found him guilty.

Third-party funding from abroad not correctly declared

He allegedly lied on multiple counts when the US Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health questioned him about his relationship with China. Since 2008, Lieber had received a total of more than $ 15 million in research funding from these two American institutions. He should therefore have declared third-party funding that he raised in other countries. In the opinion of the jury, however, he did not do this sufficiently. Another allegation in court was that he had withheld income from China from the tax office. He was found guilty on all counts.

Researcher is said to have worked improperly

Better to have collaborated with the Technical University of Wuhan from 2011. In 2012 he is said to have become part of China’s Thousand Talents Program. With this, the country wants to attract people internationally who are among the best in their field. Lieber’s three-year contract with the University of Wuhan called for payment of up to $ 50,000 a month, plus $ 158,000 for living expenses and $ 1.5 million for building a research laboratory in Wuhan – all without consulting his main employer , Harvard University. It was above all these large sums of money that the investigators found suspicious. How much money actually flowed is unclear.

The US government has major reservations about the Thousand Talent Program

The US Department of Justice says the program would reward scientists for stealing intellectual property. In 2018, the Ministry of Justice therefore started the “China Initiative” to take action against the suspected espionage. There are now at least 77 cases with more than 150 suspects. This is the result of a database compiled by MIT Technology Review magazine and published in early December. The data also shows that only a quarter of the cases are actually allegations of espionage. More often the accusation is similar to the Lieber case: a lack of transparency in cooperation with Chinese institutions. At the time, however, it was legal to take part in the Thousand Talents Program. Why Charles Lieber kept quiet about his cooperation with Wuhan is unclear. He also says he is innocent and does not consider it proven that he knowingly and deliberately acted that way. When he was asked about this for the first time in 2018, his alleged contracts with Chinese partners had already expired. At the same time he had hopes for a Nobel Prize. Perhaps he feared his ties to China would damage his image. Because that is definitely an effect of the “China Initiative” of the Ministry of Justice: The reputation of research collaborations with Chinese teams has suffered.

US researchers with Chinese roots are unsettled

The investigations and arrests have created a lot of fear in this group in particular. And it’s not a small group: before the pandemic, 372,000 Chinese were studying or writing their doctoral thesis in the United States. An Arizona State University survey of nearly 2,000 scientists this summer showed that around half of those with Chinese roots are afraid or worried that they may be monitored. Of those without Chinese ancestry, only twelve percent said so. Some respondents said that this influences their research – for example, which topics they deal with or which data sources they use. Experts fear that the USA will lose the battle for talent all the more – because international researchers will be deterred.

The sentence is still pending

Judge Rya Zobel can sentence him to up to five years in prison for his false statements alone. For the China Initiative, however, it is already a great success that could give it a new impetus. Because the Ministry of Justice has come under pressure. Another scientist was acquitted after an initial trial. Five other proceedings were subsequently closed. And a large group of MPs in Congress gave the call to investigate the China Initiative for racial profiling – that is, for racial discrimination. Because almost 90 percent of the accused have Chinese roots. The guilty verdict against Charles Lieber gives the China Initiative back its justification – more trials are to be expected now. For American science, this means that it must find ways of entering into cooperation in the future and continuing to exchange data internationally without the risk of espionage allegations.


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