Charles Lieber, Ex-Harvard Professor, Sentenced in China Ties Case

Dr. Lieber, now 64, had been chairman of Harvard’s chemistry and chemical biology department. For his work on nanotechnology, he had been seen by some as a contender for the Nobel Prize.

Since 2008, prosecutors said, his laboratory at Harvard had received research grants totaling $18 million from the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health.

But he also secretly accepted money from China, which had established a government initiative, the Thousand Talents program, to gain access to scientific knowledge and expertise, often paying scientists lavishly.

When questioned about his involvement with Thousand Talents in 2018 by federal investigators, he denied it. He also failed to report his income to the I.R.S.

But the Justice Department found that Dr. Lieber had a three-year contract with Thousand Talents, under which he agreed to establish a research lab at Wuhan University and to publish articles, organize international conferences and apply for patents on the school’s behalf.

The university agreed to pay him up to $50,000 a month as a salary and to provide living expenses of up to $150,000.

At his trial he said that a portion of his salary was deposited in a Chinese bank account. The rest, between $50,000 and $100,000, was paid in $100 bills.

“They would give me a package, a brown thing with some Chinese characters on it, I would throw it in my bag,” he said at the trial. After returning home, he said, “I didn’t declare it, and that’s illegal.”

At his trial he confessed that money was not the lure — it was the opportunity to advance his career.

“This is embarrassing,” he said at his trial. “Every scientist wants to win a Nobel Prize.”

His lawyers, noting that he has an incurable blood cancer, had asked that he be sentenced to probation or home confinement instead of serving time in prison.

Dr. Lieber’s conviction in December 2021 resulted from the China Initiative, an effort launched in 2018, under the Trump administration, to identify scientists suspected of sharing sensitive information with China.

In early 2022, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said it had more than 2,000 open investigations related to theft from China of information and technology from the United States.

But critics said that the China Initiative had unfairly targeted academic researchers of Asian descent. While the initiative led to the conviction of Dr. Lieber and other researchers, another prosecution of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist, Gang Chen, was dismissed.

In February 2022, the Justice Department ended the effort, with one official, Matthew G. Olsen, saying it “helped give rise to a harmful perception that the department applies a lower standard to investigate and prosecute criminal conduct related to that country or that we in some way view people with racial, ethnic or familial ties to China differently.”

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