More than three years after his arrest, Charles Lieber, the former chair of Harvard University’s chemistry department, has avoided prison for failing to disclose funding from China. For hiding his affiliation with a Chinese university, as well as income tax and foreign bank account reporting violations, Lieber was sentenced yesterday to time served, two years of supervised release with six months under house arrest, plus a $50,000 (£40,000) fine, and $33,600 in restitution to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
Lieber had faced a maximum of 26 years in prison and $1.2 million in fines. The nanoscience pioneer was arrested in January 2020 after authorities discovered that he failed to disclose significant Chinese funding to Harvard or US funding agencies, which raised conflict of interest concerns.
Lieber concealed his participation in China’s ‘Thousand Talents’ recruitment scheme that aims to attract and cultivate high-level scientific talent from abroad. Under his three-year Thousand Talents contract, a university in China paid Lieber a salary of up to $50,000 per month, on top of up to $150,000 in living expenses and more than $1.5 million to create a research lab there, according to the US Department of Justice (DOJ).
Lieber was convicted in December 2021 of two counts of making false statements to federal authorities, two counts of a false income tax return and two counts of failing to report foreign bank and financial accounts to the IRS.
Lieber’s legal team had requested that he receive no prison time. In a sentencing memo filed on 21 April, his lawyer, Marc Mukasey, asked for a sentence of probation or supervised release, with or without home confinement. He pointed out that Lieber was a 30-year faculty member of Harvard’s chemistry department and had spent over 80 hours a week in the lab performing research and mentoring students. He also emphasised that Lieber was not charged with grant fraud or any related offences, and the validity of his research was never in dispute.
No grant fraud, IP theft
‘Professor Lieber’s scientific research was not called into question in this case,’ the defence’s sentencing memo said. ‘There was no theft of trade secrets or intellectual property.’ Neither did Lieber disclose any confidential or proprietary research to the Chinese government or to any Chinese university, it added. In the end, he was convicted only of making false statements to US government agents about whether he had an affiliation with the Thousand Talents scheme, and participation and the scheme is not a crime, the memo noted.
Further, the defence team noted Lieber’s diagnosis of follicular lymphoma, a serious blood cancer. He is currently in remission and is not receiving treatment, although they said quarterly visits to an oncology clinic for follow-up and monitoring are required, as well as a sterile environment as he is immuno-compromised.
Lieber has been largely confined to his home and hospitals in recent years, typically leaving only for medical appointments, brief walks around the neighbourhood and occasional visits to a local farm, according to his lawyers. He was on paid administrative leave from Harvard since his arrested more than three years ago, until his retirement in February.
‘Professor Lieber is profoundly remorseful for the facts and circumstances that have brought him before this court,’ the sentencing memo said, adding that his travel to China – which amounted, in total, to no more than a couple of weeks – has ‘shattered’ his life. ‘He no longer has a laboratory, equipment, research materials, funding, students or salary,’ his lawyers added. ‘He will never again be awarded a government grant for research. His reputation is in tatters.’
In contrast, the prosecution’s sentencing memo argued that Lieber lied to government agents to obstruct inquiries into his grants, and because he cheated on his taxes. ‘Over the course of several years, the defendant purposely deceived three separate government agencies about a highly lucrative contract that he negotiated and signed with the Wuhan University of Technology,’ the prosecution wrote.
Prosecutors argued that ‘a meaningful sentence of incarceration’ was necessary to provide just punishment to the defendant. On behalf of the government, they recommended that Lieber be imprisoned for 90 days, receive one year of supervised release that includes 90 days of house arrest, and be fined $150,000.
Reaction from the research community was mixed. ‘This case illustrates the scale-invariance of poor judgment: on a small scale by a university professor, on a larger scale by his university and his silent colleagues, and on a grand scale by the DOJ and law enforcement,’ Yoel Fink, a materials scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), tells Chemistry World. ‘Perhaps the tragic consequences of this collective lapse will motivate us to learn the lessons and do better in the future.’
Fink organised MIT’s 2021 letter in support of Gang Chen, a Chinese-born nanotechnologist who headed the university’s nanoengineering lab. He was arrested in 2021 for not reporting ties to and funding from China and faced up to 20 years in prison. However, prosecutors dropped charges against Chen in January 2022 amid new information that destroyed the case against him.
Harvard emeritus professor of organic chemistry Elias Corey is relieved that the judge was relatively lenient by deciding that the two days Lieber spent in prison was sufficient punishment. ‘Charlie has already suffered enough,’ he says. ‘His ordeal is over I trust.’
Xiaoxing Xi, the former chair of the physics department at Temple University, who was arrested in 2015 on charges of spying for China but was vindicated when the government dropped its case against him in 2021, is circumspect on the case’s conclusion. Lieber’s sentence does not change Xi’s opinion that Lieber was only investigated because he had quite a few Chinese students in his lab, he says. ‘Targeting a professor based on where his or her students come from is racial profiling, and it is contrary to America’s ideals,’ Xi states.