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a guide to the Charles Lieber affair

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

A long-awaited lawsuit opened today against star nanotechnology researcher Charles Lieber, who is accused by the US government of lying about his involvement in a Chinese government talent recruitment program and of failing to disclose China’s income on its tax returns. This is the second trial of an academic accused of concealing ties to China since the Department of Justice (DOJ) launched a controversial initiative in 2018 to prevent the country from using US resources for political ends – and legal experts say his verdict could influence the prosecution. future cases.

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

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

A Lieber lawyer said Nature: “We will make our speech in the courtroom”. But in a court filing, his legal team wrote that “the government will be unable to prove, on every count, that [Lieber] acted knowingly, intentionally or intentionally, or made a material misrepresentation ”.

Massachusetts District Attorney’s Office says Nature he expects Lieber’s trial to continue for about a week. Here’s what to watch out for.

What is the case against Lieber?

Lieber’s trial will focus on the false claims he allegedly made to federal agencies. Prosecutors allege Lieber lied or misled the US Department of Defense (DOD) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), from which he had received at least $ 15 million in grants since 2008. According to the government, he made false statements about his participation in a major Chinese talent recruitment program known as the Thousand Talent Plan, which paid him a monthly salary of up to $ 50,000, around $ 158,000 per year in personal expenses and livelihood, and more than $ 1.5 million in funding for a joint lab between Harvard University and Wuhan University of Technology (WUT). Participating in a foreign talent recruiting program is not illegal, but knowingly and willfully making material misrepresentations to US government agencies is a crime.

According to a dossier filed by prosecutors, Lieber allegedly told investigators from the DOD Criminal Investigation Service in 2018 that he did not know how he was characterized by China, but denied being explicitly invited to participate in the Thousand Program. talents. Investigators were acting on information from the FBI when they questioned Lieber, the filing shows. He also said the nanotechnology researcher told Harvard administrators that he was not, and never had been, a participant in the program during a grant compliance review for the NIH, which in 2018 began to examine the potential connections Harvard and Lieber had with the WUT. and a thousand talents.

But an affidavit from FBI Special Agent Robert Plumb states that the WUT asked Lieber in 2012 to participate in the program, that he accepted a three-year contract, and that he was paid over several years in accordance. to this one.

Legal experts pointed out Nature that it will be on prosecutors to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that, among other things, Lieber knowingly and willfully made false statements. “It looks like the government has emails that will be helpful in doing this, but we will 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 onus is on the government to do more than just prove that the forms were incorrectly filled out. They also have this element of, what was the context, what was going on in Professor Lieber’s mind? “

What could happen at trial?

When it comes to the misrepresentation accusations, some would expect Lieber’s legal team to say he misunderstood what was asked of him in those 2018 inquiries. “I would expect that let the defense against the charges be – I guess right – he misunderstood the question, felt he was giving a truthful answer, forgot, [or] got confused, ”said Seth DuCharme, a partner at the Bracewell New York law firm and a former senior Justice Department official.

The fact that Lieber actually received all of the benefits promised by the so-called Thousand Talents contract could also affect his conviction. According to Plumb’s affidavit, the contract Lieber would have agreed to grant a salary of up to $ 50,000 per month calculated on the basis of the 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 likely significantly affect his sentence – the higher the amount, the higher the sentence. severe.

Why is the outcome of this case important?

The result matters to Lieber personally, of course, but it could also have a ripple effect. Many in the research community fear that the U.S. government’s efforts to quell foreign interference will hamper scientific collaborations and lead to an exodus of Chinese-born researchers from the United States. They also fear there is racial profiling – a charge the US government has repeatedly denied. A number of scientists have called for an end to the China Initiative, including around 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 being politically motivated.

Derek Adams, a partner in the Potomac Law Group and a former DOJ prosecutor, said if a researcher as well-known as Lieber was not acquitted, other researchers accused of hiding links to China might be less willing to fight the charges and more willing to plead. offers. “The accused will probably see that there is more risk involved,” he said.

On the other hand, if the case is decided in Lieber’s favor, Adams believes that a second loss in court since the launch of the China Initiative could cause the Justice Department to rethink its prosecution strategy, to reduce the resources and effort it devotes to these cases, or give defendants more leverage in plea negotiations. The US Congress could also lobby to end the China Initiative. On July 29, Representative Ted Lieu and about 90 other members of Congress sent a letter to United States Attorney General Merrick Garland, requesting a Justice Department investigation into the historic targeting of individuals of Asian descent for suspected espionage, and information as to whether individuals are being targeted on the basis of race, ethnicity or national origin as part of the China Initiative. Lieber is one of the exceptions, but an analysis of MIT Technology Review charges suspected of being associated with the China Initiative revealed that more than 90% of the defendants were of Chinese origin.

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