One Less Talent for China: The Rise and Fall of Charles Lieber

Marina Ziemnick

Remember Dr. Charles Lieber? Ranked the top chemist of the 2000s by Thomson Reuters, Lieber was a true star in the field, publishing over 340 papers in peer-reviewed journals and serving as the “principal inventor” on more than 35 patents. His research group at Harvard University, the Lieber Research Group, brought in more than $15 million in federal research grants over the course of ten years. With a CV loaded with awards and accolades, it’s safe to say that Charles Lieber enjoyed some of the greatest success that his field had to offer.

But these achievements weren’t enough for Dr. Lieber. In his mind, they were more like “bronze medals.” With his eyes set on a Nobel Prize, Lieber began a dangerous affair with the Chinese government ten years ago—and now he is facing the consequences.

On December 21st, 2021, Charles Lieber was convicted for crimes related to his involvement in China’s Thousand Talents Program. The conviction came as a result of a six-day jury trial in which Lieber was tried for “two counts of making false statements to federal authorities, two counts of making and subscribing a false income tax return, and two counts of failing to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts with the Internal Revenue Service.” While sentencing will take place at a later date, Lieber could face over 25 years in prison and a fine of more than one million dollars for his crimes.

But this won’t even come close to the amount that Dr. Lieber raked in during his time working for the Chinese government. Lieber was first recruited as a “Strategic Scientist” by the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT), where he was paid more than $1.5 million to establish a “shadow lab”—that is, a lab in which he would essentially duplicate the research he was conducting in America.

Shortly after, he signed a three-year contract with the Thousand Talents Program, the Chinese Communist Party’s most infamous “talent recruitment plan,” which reportedly has enticed more than 7,000 scientists from across the globe to join its ranks. Lieber’s contract awarded him a salary of up to $50,000 per month, as well as an additional $150,000 for living expenses. Unsurprisingly, Lieber neglected to tell both Harvard University and the U.S. federal government, which funded much of his past and current research, about his involvement with China, undoubtedly so that he could enjoy the benefits of an untaxed second salary without disruption.

Charles Lieber is not the first American academic to be caught smuggling information to China, and he won’t be the last. The National Association of Scholars maintains a database of professors, administrators, students, and government researchers working in America who have been charged for crimes involving illegal ties to China. The tally currently sits at an uncomfortable 48—and keep in mind that these are only the cases we know about. In all likelihood, the number of academics and researchers who have become entangled with the Chinese government is far, far higher.

Colleges and universities must encourage their researchers to disclose foreign funding and enforce existing disclosure policies. Otherwise, well-meaning researchers will continue to get drafted in geo-political battles.

We must be vigilant in tracking and stopping the flow of American research to China both for the sake of research integrity and for national security interests. Charles Lieber’s conviction is a step in the right direction, but it is by no means the end of the fight.

Marina Ziemnick is a Communications Associate at the National Association of Scholars.

Image: Howchou, Public Domain

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