BOSTON — Charles Lieber, one of the country’s top research chemists, sat at the Harvard Police Department, trying to explain to two FBI agents why he had agreed to partner with a lesser-known Chinese university in a relationship that had soured and landed him in trouble with the U.S. government.
The university had money to spend; “that’s one of the things China uses to try to seduce people,” Lieber said in the interrogation, clips of which were shown in court. He described returning from several visits to China carrying tens of thousands of dollars in cash, wrapped in “a package, a brown thing with some Chinese characters on it.”
But money was not why he had become involved, he said. By training young scientists in the use of technology he had pioneered, he hoped to burnish his credentials with the committee that decides the ultimate scientific honor.
“This is embarrassing,” he said. “Every scientist wants to win a Nobel Prize.”
The trial of Lieber, which is expected to conclude this week, has offered a glimpse inside the big-money, big-prestige world of elite science as the U.S. government began the China Initiative, an effort to root out scientists suspected of sharing sensitive information with China.
Like many of the government’s cases against researchers, the one against Lieber does not bring charges of espionage or intellectual property theft but something narrower: a failure to disclose Chinese funding that could be viewed as a conflict of interest by the U.S. government, which also funds their research.
Lieber is accused of lying to the government on two occasions about whether he participated in China’s Thousand Talents Plan, an effort to attract foreign-educated scientists to China; of failing to declare income earned in China on his tax returns; and of failing to declare a Chinese bank account. Although participating in the Chinese recruitment program is not a crime, making false statements to government agencies about it is.
The trial comes as the China Initiative, which began under the Trump administration in 2018, has experienced a series of setbacks. In July, the Justice Department dropped cases against five researchers accused of hiding ties to the Chinese military; and in September, the one against a researcher, Anming Hu, the first prosecution to reach the trial stage, ended in an acquittal.
The verdict in Lieber’s case is being watched in scientific circles as an indicator of whether the Justice Department will proceed with the prosecutions of other researchers.
Lieber’s lawyer, Marc Mukasey, argued in court that the government could not prove the false statements charges because the two interviews in question, in 2018 and 2019, were neither taped nor precisely transcribed.
“That day almost two years ago when the FBI raided Charlie’s home and office, they turned off one of the leading lights in the world of science,” he said in an opening statement, referring to Lieber’s 2020 arrest.
A guilty verdict requires “proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and the government simply doesn’t have it,” he added. “If there was a Nobel Prize for inventing something out of nothing, the government’s case would win.”
Conviction on a false statement charge could bring a sentence of up to five years in prison.
Among the researchers under federal prosecution as part of the China Initiative, Lieber is by far the most prominent. Celebrated in the world of chemistry, he served as chair of Harvard’s department of chemistry and chemical biology and was seen by many in the field as a potential Nobel winner.
Every morning, a handful of Lieber’s colleagues have filed into the gallery in Boston’s federal courthouse to listen to testimony.
Adam Cohen, a professor of chemistry, chemical biology and physics, who attended last week, called him “one of the best and most impactful chemists alive.”
Brian Timko, who worked under Lieber as a graduate student and now heads his own laboratory at Tufts University, said Leiber had invented electronic chips so small and flexible that they could be injected into parts of the human body, like the brain or the retina.
Eventually, he said, the technology could lead to breakthroughs in bioelectronic medicine, like restoring sight to blind people or movement to paralyzed limbs.
“I was especially devastated this week just by the way all of Charlie’s accomplishments, his altruistic accomplishments, were twisted,” Timko said. “Charlie spent his whole career trying to help the world, and a handful of individuals who don’t even understand how science works tore the whole thing down. And that is just not fair.”
Mukasey, Lieber’s lawyer, tried during the trial to shift the focus toward the importance of Lieber’s work, asking one government witness to read aloud the paragraph of his curriculum vitae that lists 23 prizes he has won, among them the Welch Award in Chemistry, the John Gamble Kirkwood Award and the Von Hippel Award.
‘These people want to use me’
It is standard for high-level academic researchers to enter into contracts with outside employers, either consulting with private-sector firms or maintaining affiliations at universities in other countries.
In 2011, Lieber started a joint venture with Wuhan University, where one of his former students had taken a post.
A three-year contract emailed to Lieber in 2012 and displayed to the jury by prosecutors made him a “One Thousand Talent High Level Foreign Expert,” entitling him to $50,000 a month, plus about $150,000 in living expenses and more than $1.5 million for a laboratory, which they called the WUT-Harvard Joint Nano Key Laboratory.
Mukasey has argued that the document proves nothing about payments or Lieber’s status, comparing it to a congratulatory letter from Publishers Clearing House.
Lieber, who has been on paid administrative leave from Harvard since his arrest in 2020, told the FBI that he received a smaller amount, with between $50,000 and $100,000 paid in cash and another portion deposited into a bank account in China, which at one time contained about $200,000 but which he said he had never touched.
Emails read at trial trace the deterioration of Lieber’s relationship with his colleagues in Wuhan. In one email, Lieber complained to a colleague that his partners there were pressuring him to credit their grants in his published work.
He was also upset when Wuhan University nominated him as a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences but he was not elected, an outcome he described in an email as “an insult to me and all that I’ve done for Chinese scientists.” (He was elected later, in 2015.)
“I definitely do not have a good taste” about “many ‘friends’ in China,” Lieber wrote in an email to a Chinese colleague at another institution. “These people want to use me, so we will not let that happen, versus me using them. But we’ll be ever so polite in the mean time.”
To make things worse, Harvard administrators had discovered that the Wuhan institution was using Harvard’s name on its nanotechnology laboratory without permission.
By 2018, the Wuhan arrangement had become a serious problem for Lieber. Investigators from the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health approached Lieber to ask if he had participated in the Thousand Talents program.
“They are threatening not only to end my funding (which supports much of my research) but also force me to pay back the last three plus years they supported much of my work,” he wrote to a Chinese colleague, adding, “perhaps someone (Chinese) who does not like me brought this to attention of NIH?”
Since 2008, Lieber’s lab had received research grants totaling $18 million from the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health, court documents show.
Lieber had said little to investigators until 6:30 a.m. Jan. 28, 2020, when two FBI agents arrested and handcuffed him at his office in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
After initially asking for a lawyer, he went on to answer the agents’ questions for about three hours.
At first, according to a video clip shown in court, he suggested the charges may have been based on a mix-up, because he had written a paper with a former student who “had Thousand Talents funding, which is a big no-no.”
He also told them he had never received payment from Wuhan University aside from travel expenses and had not qualified for the Thousand Talents grant because it required spending extended time in China.
Then the agents produced a series of documents, including contracts from 2011 and 2012, and Lieber examined them, remarking at one point, “I should pay more attention to what I’m signing.”
“That’s pretty damning,” he said. “Now that you bring it up, yes, I do remember.”
He went on to offer detail about his financial arrangements with Wuhan University: A portion of his salary was deposited in a Chinese bank account, and the remainder was paid in $100 bills, which he carried home in his luggage.
He said his involvement with the university had ended by 2016 but acknowledged he had not been forthcoming when approached by the Defense Department two years later.
“I was scared of being arrested, like I am now,” he said.
At moments in the interview, Lieber was reflective about the role of international funding in the lives of researchers, saying that relationships with foreign partners were never as straightforward as they seemed at first.
“Early on, if someone said, ‘We’ll give you this title, and we’ll pay your travel to and from,’ you don’t think anything about it,” he explained, but partners “always want something from you.”
“A lot of countries, money is what they have in excess,” he said.
He tried to impress on the two special agents that a different motive, the desire for acclaim, had brought him to partner with Wuhan and train scientists there.
“I was younger and stupid,” he said. “I want to be recognized for what I’ve done. Everyone wants to be recognized.” He offered a comparison he had given his son, a high school wrestler. The Nobel Prize is “kind of like an Olympic gold medal; it’s very, very rare,” he said.
A prize he had won recently was more like a bronze medal, he said with a self-deprecating laugh. “That probably is the underlying reason I did this,” he said.