Charles Lieber, the former head of Harvard University‘s Chemistry Department, stood trial on Tuesday for federal crimes related to his alleged ties to the Chinese government. Pleading not guilty, the chemistry professor, 62, is accused of lying to federal authorities about receiving a yearly salary from the Wuhan University of Technology.
The move from the Justice Department, according to The New York Times, signaled a change in how the U.S. government cracks down on scientists attempting to steal research from American laboratories and secretly bring them to China.
Harvard professor Charles Lieber was allegedly tied to China’s Thousand Talents program, an initiative aimed at attracting foreign-educated scientists to come to China. Making false statements about his China ties, authorities eventually uncovered that he was awarded over $1.5 million by the Chinese government to head a nanotechnology research lab at the Wuhan University of Technology.
Lieber was also being paid up to $158,000 per year for his efforts, which he did not disclose on National Institutes of Health grant applications. He was required to answer if he was working with any foreign power. Lieber also received additional charges of failing to disclose his earnings from China on federal income tax returns, as well as failing to report foreign bank accounts.
There has been no evidence so far, according to The New York Times, that Charles Lieber shared any research with Chinese authorities, however, meaning that the esteemed professor may end up facing just his additional charges of lying to Harvard University and hiding knowledge of foreign income from the federal government.
Back in 2020, Charles Lieber was placed on administrative leave by Harvard University, though his biography on the school’s website remains active.
“The charges brought by the U.S. government against Professor Lieber are extremely serious,” said a spokesman for Harvard University. “Harvard is cooperating with federal authorities, including the National Institutes of Health, and is initiating its own review of the alleged misconduct.”
According to The Harvard Crimson, the trial was expedited due to his “deteriorating health condition.” Lieber was diagnosed with cancer, revealed at a preliminary hearing in March. He has a very aggressive form of lymphoma, according to Marc Mukasey, Lieber’s attorney, which is a cancer of the lymph nodes.
“Professor Lieber frankly does not have time for delay, procrastination, and stalling,” Mukasey said. “His PET scans are lighted up with cancer, and conventional treatments have failed.”
“He is fighting for his life while also fighting the government,” he added. “He is eager to show the world at trial how the government has it wrong.”
Mukasey had also previously argued that, “The entire prosecution of an innocent man dying of cancer is ghastly, barbaric and unnecessary.”
In a public petition to Harvard, over 41 professors and Nobel laureates from esteemed universities questioned why Harvard was taking up the court battle during Lieber’s troubled time. The Harvard professor is also suing the university alleging that they broke his contract by refusing to pay for his criminal defense.
“Our efforts are all the more urgent as Professor Lieber is fighting for his life on another front,” the letter read. “Instead of devoting what may be the final months of his life to fulfilling his scientific and educational calling, he is tackling the monumental task of restoring his reputation.”
Harvard officials pointed to their policy that excluded individuals who have been “determined not to have acted in good faith.”
Many critics have also brought attention to the anti-China movement in the U.S. Charles Lieber’s arrest coincided with Wuhan’s presence in the news due to the Covid-19 outbreak, which led to a substantial amount of misinformation about his case.
Charles Lieber faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison.