Skip to Main Content
Contribute Try STAT+ Today

The trial was supposed to be a bellwether — an indicator of whether federal investigators might ease up in their scrutiny of university labs with potential ties to China. Already, a University of Tennessee engineer had been found not guilty of any misconduct. The Justice Department had dropped charges against five other researchers, who’d been accused of covering up links to the Chinese military. If Harvard University nanotechnology star Charles Lieber were let off, too, it might deal a blow to the China Initiative, a Trump-era search for academics involved in scientific espionage. 

Instead, Lieber was found guilty on Tuesday — not of espionage or theft of intellectual property, but of lying to federal agents and failing to report foreign income and assets on his tax filings. 

To some legal experts, scientists shouldn’t see the verdict as a threat to international research: Don’t lie to the FBI, they say, and you’ll be fine. But to many academics, that’s exactly what it is. As Ann Lin, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, put it, “What they’re going to hear from that is, ‘It’s wrong to collaborate with China.’ And I think the federal government has to ask itself seriously, ‘Is that the message we really want to send?’” 

advertisement

Derek Adams, a former Department of Justice attorney — now a partner at the Potomac Law Group — said he initially worried the China Initiative was using a clumsy tool to address an intricate issue. “I thought it might be really problematic if the DOJ was successful in this case — that it may suggest continued action in the China Initiative, and it may embolden them … to continue these cases, and that it may serve to stifle Chinese nationals and others from coming here and having affiliations in China,” he said. “What’s interesting about how the trial came out is that I actually think it may not have that effect, because it’s not like most of the other cases, at least as I’ve seen.”

The difference was that this was not about whether a researcher remembered to disclose a foreign affiliation on some grant application years ago, as other cases had been. Instead, the lynchpin evidence at the trial was a video of the FBI questioning Lieber. He’d initially told agents he didn’t receive money from a Chinese institution, but when they produced contracts that suggested the opposite, his story changed: “That’s pretty damning. Now that you bring it up, yes, I do remember.”

advertisement

To Adams, that wasn’t a broadly applicable situation. “Everyone can understand that if you’re talking to federal agents, and you lie to them — you can’t do that,” he said, adding, “In that sense, I think it may be less impactful on the China Initiative than I anticipated.”

Seth DuCharme, a former acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, has a similar view. “This was something I was involved in when I was at the [Justice] Department: outreach to academics, to kind of educate them about the way certain foreign countries might try to make them witting or unwitting assets, you know, could convert them to their instrument, for the purpose of collecting intellectual property,” he said, specifying that he was speaking in his personal capacity. He heard and understood their concern that the China Initiative might discourage research across borders. “They saw a very important interest in not chilling that kind of collaboration — for, essentially, the good of all humankind.”

DuCharme, now a partner at Bracewell, doesn’t think that the Lieber verdict should be perceived as “an escalating kind of hostility toward the academic or scientific community.” Instead, to him, it’s a kind of reminder that if you enter into those sorts of international research projects, there may be law enforcement and national security interests at play, and you need to be transparent.

Some academics, though, have already felt that hostility for years. “They’re really destroying people’s careers, and smart people are going to think twice about staying in the United States,” said Alice Huang, a virologist at the California Institute of Technology, and a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “It’s a loss to our scientific community.” 

She’s seen that those who’ve been investigated through the China Initiative have often been put on leave without pay — taking a significant toll on their families and lives. The vast majority, according to an MIT Technology Review analysis, have been of Chinese heritage. In that sense, this week’s verdict is an anomaly. “The big win for them, in the Lieber case, is that it supports the Department of Justice claim that they are not racial profiling,” said Huang. But to her it doesn’t show that the China Initiative is doing what it’s supposed to: “They’re really looking for espionage, and what they got was some poor guy who was afraid to admit certain things.”

Elizabeth McEvoy, an attorney focused on research misconduct and integrity at the firm Hinckley Allen, agrees that the case will have a negative effect on the research community. “While no one has gone so far to say that participating in foreign-funded programs should cease, the government’s close monitoring and scrutiny of these activities over the past 3 plus years provides great incentive for researchers to simply avoid such collaborations moving forward, often to the detriment of scientific advancement,” she wrote by email.

If the verdict was a bellwether, it wasn’t pointing in the direction that many researchers had hoped. “Obviously, we do not condone illegal activities but feel strongly that targeting American scholars collaborating on non-confidential basic science with colleagues in China does serious damage to the search for knowledge that leads to discoveries of profound value in health and technology,” Randy Schekman, a Nobel-prize winning biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in an email.

Create a display name to comment

This name will appear with your comment