Conviction of Harvard Researcher for Chinese Ties Serves as Caution to Universities

By: Thomas A. Vorbach, Susan Llewellyn Deniker

Published: December 29, 2021

Charles Lieber, former chair of the chemistry and chemical biology department at Harvard University, was convicted on December 21st by a jury on two counts of making false statements to federal authorities, two counts of making a false income tax return, and two counts of failing to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts with the IRS due to his relationships with China’s Thousand Talents Program (TTP) and the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT). He received cash and living expenses from TTP and more than $1.5 million to establish a WUT research lab. Lieber opened an account at a Chinese bank into which WUT made salary deposits, but he did not report the existence of the account as required by U.S. law.

In a statement released by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts following the verdict, Lieber was said to have assumed the role of “Strategic Scientist” for WUT, a position that he did not disclose, and served as a TTP contractor from at least 2012 through 2015. As the Department of Justice described TTP, “China’s Thousand Talents Plan is one of the most prominent Chinese talent recruitment plans designed to attract, recruit, and cultivate high-level scientific talent in furtherance of China’s scientific development, economic prosperity, and national security.”

Lieber will face maximum jail terms of up to three to five years for each of the counts for which he was convicted, as well as fines of up to $250,000 for each count. Lieber’s sentencing hearing has not yet been scheduled.

Lieber’s activities serve as just the most recent example of unlawful foreign involvement which negatively impacts U.S. higher education institutions and their personnel, research scientists, and affiliated research and fund-raising organizations. While Lieber’s actions appear to have been clearly intentional, government authorities have also voiced concern regarding the potential for inadvertent disclosures of valuable intellectual property to foreign agents by institutional researchers.

Higher education institutions will need to be prepared for enhanced federal scrutiny of their international relationships if the US Innovation and Competition Act (Senate) and the EAGLE Act (House) are adopted by Congress as appears possible next year. As a footnote, Reuters and The Guardian reported in November that China’s embassy in Washington, D.C. sent letters to executives urging them to oppose the Acts.

If your institution sponsors or hosts academic research with global dimensions, it is important to have appropriate safeguards and protections in place, and Steptoe & Johnson attorneys can help. For assistance with global research and exchange programs, contact the Steptoe & Johnson Higher Education Team.

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