American science and China: The Lieber case

By Claude Barfield

On December 21, Charles Lieber, a Harvard University professor and potential winner of a Nobel Prize for chemistry, was convicted by a federal jury for failing to report income from Chinese sources and disclose connections with the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) via Beijing’s Thousand Talents Program (TTP). (The TTP was launched in 2012, originally to attract Chinese scientists back to the mainland, but it has since expanded into a means of attracting scientific talent from around the world.) Specifically, Lieber ultimately admitted to concealing from federal investigators (and Harvard) a monthly stipend of $50,000 from WUT (half in US dollars and half in a Chinese bank account), $150,000 for living expenses, and $1.5 million in grants for nanotechnology research.

A few more background facts before comment: The federal government pursued Lieber under the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) China Initiative, which was created in 2018 by the Trump administration to counter Beijing’s economic espionage and intellectual property (IP) theft. The Biden administration’s DOJ has continued the program despite criticism that it overreaches and unlawfully singles out Asians for higher profiling.

The initiative has a mixed record of achievement, with a number of cases against US or foreign scholars dismissed outright by federal courts. As with the Lieber case, some of the initiative’s convictions have occurred on grounds of lying to the government and failing to disclose Chinese institutional relationships — not from actual economic espionage. Still, the DOJ has highlighted some 15 prosecutions and operations under the program since Joe Biden took office last year.

Charles Lieber leaves federal court in Boston, MA after being charged with lying to the federal authorities in connection with aiding China, January 30, 2020, via Reuters

Here are my thoughts in this brief blog space. First, the problem of Chinese government-endorsed economic espionage and IP theft is real and will grow, including via sophisticated efforts to infiltrate US science institutions and top universities. Lieber himself ruefully acknowledged this fact when he told the FBI that international partners “always want something from you. . . . A lot of countries, money is what they have in excess. . . . That’s one of the things China uses to seduce people.” While some of the China Initiative’s indictments clearly represent overreach, one cannot ignore instances in which the federal government proved its case successfully.

Second, for US research universities and science-based foundations, it is clear that much more attention and many more resources must be devoted to policing grants — and the activities of grantees and scholars. It is not illegal, nor should it be, for American scholars to accept posts and grants from foreign institutions, but they should report these dealings when accepting federal grants.

Finally, there is a larger set of issues relating to world science. For well over a century, international collaborations have been a central driver of research and advancements in many scientific fields. It is also the undeniable reality that today’s Chinese scientists are often at the forefront of their respective research fields. The US should proceed cautiously and carefully when considering curtailing — or even banning — academic collaboration with Chinese scientists and attempts to deny alliances with scientists from other countries who choose to enter into joint scientific ventures that include Chinese scholars. Unless we are clear-eyed about future international science policies, the US could hamper its own advancement in vital science fields.

(A special thanks goes to the intrepid reporters from the Harvard Crimson who compelled me to look into this issue.)

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American science and China: The Lieber case