A Harvard University professor was convicted on Tuesday of charges that he lied about his ties to a China-run recruitment programme in a closely-watched case stemming from a crackdown on Chinese influence within US research.
A federal jury in Boston found Charles Lieber, a renowned nanoscientist and the former chairman of Harvard’s chemistry and chemical biology department, guilty of making false statements to authorities, filing false tax returns and failing to report a Chinese bank account.
Prosecutors alleged that Lieber, in his quest for a Nobel Prize, in 2011 agreed to become a “strategic scientist” at Wuhan University of Technology in China and participated in a Chinese recruitment drive called the Thousand Talents Program.
Prosecutors say China uses that programme to recruit foreign researchers to share their knowledge with the country. Participation is not a crime, but prosecutors contend Lieber, 62, lied to authorities inquiring about his involvement.
Lieber lied about his role in the programme in response to inquiries from the defence department and the National Institutes of Health, which had awarded him $15 million in research grants, the prosecutors said.
Defence lawyer Marc Mukasey countered that prosecutors had “mangled” evidence, lacked key documents to support their claims and relied too heavily on a “confused” FBI interview with the scientist after his arrest.
Lieber, who is battling cancer, sat emotionless the verdict was announced following nearly three hours of jury deliberations and a six-day trial. “We respect the verdict and will keep up the fight,” Mukasey said.
The professor was charged in January 2020 as part of the US Department of Justice’s attempt to counter suspected Chinese economic espionage and research theft.
President Joe Biden’s administration has continued the initiative, though the Justice Department has said it is reviewing its approach.
Critics contend that the initiative harms academic research, racially profiles Chinese researchers and terrorised some scientists.
A Tennessee professor was acquitted by a judge this year following a mistrial, and prosecutors dropped charges against six other researchers.
- AFP with additional editing by George Russell