By Nate Raymond
BOSTON – A Harvard University professor misled U.S. authorities by repeatedly lying about his ties to a China-run recruitment program, a prosecutor said on Tuesday, as a closely-watched trial in a crackdown on Chinese influence in U.S. research neared its end.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Casey told a Boston federal jury that Charles Lieber, a renowned nanoscientist and former chair of Harvard’s chemistry department, lied to U.S. investigators to protect his career and Nobel Prize ambitions.
Casey said evidence established Lieber, 62, had agreed to affiliate with a Chinese university and participate in China’s Thousand Talents Program, which prosecutors say China uses to entice foreign researchers to share their knowledge with it.
But in his closing argument, Casey said Lieber denied his involvement when confronted by officials at Harvard and the U.S. Defense Department, and the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which had awarded him $15 million in research grants that could be threatened.
“With everything on the line, what did the defendant do?” Casey asked. “He made up a story.”
Marc Mukasey, Lieber’s lawyer, countered that the prosecution’s case was full of holes and relied on missing documents and a “muddled,” confused interview with FBI agents after his arrest.
“Without these critical items of proof, without the evidence that’s missing, the government cannot prove the charges in this case beyond reasonable doubt,” he said.
The trial represents a test of the U.S. Justice Department’s “China Initiative” launched in 2018 to combat Chinese economic espionage and trade secrets theft. Critics have said the initiative harms academic research and racially profiles Chinese researchers.
Lieber faces six counts of making false statements, filing false tax returns and failing to disclose a Chinese bank account.
The tax and bank account charges relate to the up to $50,000 per month prosecutors said Lieber received while affiliating from 2011 to 2015 with Wuhan University of Technology in China.