Following Chemistry professor Charles M. Lieber’s conviction last month, Harvard scientists say they are “shocked” and “saddened” about the prolific research chemist's fall from grace — and apprehensive about the future of international scientific collaboration.
A federal jury found Lieber guilty of lying to government authorities who were investigating his ties to China and committing tax fraud. He has been on paid administrative leave at Harvard since his arrest in January 2020.
During a six-day trial in December, federal prosecutors charged that Lieber lied about his connections to a Chinese recruitment initiative — the Thousand Talents Program — in pursuit of money and notoriety. But in interviews with The Crimson this month, some Harvard scientists voiced support for Lieber, who has not spoken publicly since his arrest.
Professor of Physics and Applied Physics Philip Kim, who did his doctoral research in Lieber’s lab, said the news of the verdict shocked him, especially given Lieber’s international prominence.
“A scientist [of] his status — I think this came as a complete shock,” Kim said.
Theodore Betley, who succeeded Lieber as chair of the Harvard Chemistry Department, said he was “stunned” at the initial news of Lieber’s arrest.
“I was dismayed because I saw somebody I care deeply about suffering,” Betley said. “You don’t want to see any of your colleagues, friends, in that intense duress.”
Several professors reminisced about Lieber’s scientific contributions and their personal memories of his work. James G. Anderson, a professor of atmospheric chemistry, said he admired Lieber for his innovation and generosity.
“He’s a treasured colleague, not just for his dedication and leadership — placing him in the pantheon of science in the latter part of the 20th century and in this century — but also for his unwavering, unselfish focus on advancing his colleagues’ research in any way he can,” Anderson said.
Both Betley and Evelyn L. Hu, a professor of applied physics and electrical engineering, noted Lieber’s support of aspiring scientists and junior colleagues.
“The list of his former students and postdocs — their current success, it’s a tremendous list — is evidence that Charles Lieber has dedicated his career to sharing and showing that joy of discovery to others,” Hu said.
Hu took aim at prosecutors, saying that Lieber's trial has caused the public to view him as a “one-dimensional, self-serving” person who attempted to “subvert” national security.
“That is a disastrously incorrect view of Charles, of any dedicated researcher,” Hu said. “It's a tremendously flawed picture of what open research means and what it can mean.”
Lieber’s conviction was a high-profile victory for the Department of Justice’s China Initiative, which aims to prosecute people involved in “trade secret theft, hacking, and economic espionage,” according to the DOJ’s website.
Last March, 41 scientists from several American universities, including Harvard, signed onto a letter voicing concerns over the “chilling effect” that the government's scrutiny of academics could have on international scientific research.
Hu said that despite holding long-standing academic connections to Hong Kong universities, she now feels a need to be more careful in her international engagements.
“Now I’m very cautious if a university in Hong Kong with whom I have very close associations asks me to serve on an advisory board,” she said. “We believe that there is now a closer scrutiny — and perhaps not an entirely transparent and well-informed scrutiny — that’s being placed on all of those activities."
Eugene I. Shakhnovich, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology, said he saw “parallels” between recently increasing suspicions of academic espionage in the U.S. and his time as a young scientist in the Soviet Union.
“My instinctive feeling [is] that science should be open, and there should be free exchange of ideas, results, intermediate things, without being scared of some sort of espionage,” he said.
Shakhnovich added that as a result of closer scrutiny on their research activities, some of his colleagues of Chinese origin at other institutions are even considering moving back to China despite holding “prominent positions” in the U.S.
Other Harvard scientists, including Sciences Dean Christopher W. Stubbs, say Lieber’s trial is unique, even from other cases brought under the China Initiative.
Stubbs said Lieber "fell short of institutional expectations and federal expectations" for research disclosure, but added that he holds broader concerns about the government's crackdown on so-called academic espionage.
“I would separate the specific circumstances of Professor Lieber’s situation from the broader context of how the federal government is approaching strategic competition with China,” Stubbs said.
Sean R. Eddy, a professor of molecular and cellular biology and of applied mathematics, noted that Lieber was expressly convicted of lying to federal authorities and of tax fraud, which makes it an “unusual” case. Still, he said the trial has “ramifications for international science.”
“We have a free exchange of ideas and people across international borders, and the idea that basic research results can be stolen across international lines is something that rubs all of us in the scientific community the wrong way,” Eddy said.
Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton wrote in an emailed statement that University President Lawrence S. Bacow “has emphasized the University’s broad support for and advocated on behalf of international collaboration for faculty and scholars, at Harvard and other institutions.”
Caroline E. Ferguson, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, declined to comment.
—Staff writer Ariel H. Kim can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer Meimei Xu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MeimeiXu7.