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Scientists Push Back on DOJ Charges Against Harvard Professor

Harvard University professor Charles Lieber is surrounded by reporters as he leaves the Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston, Jan. 30, 2020.

Forty academics have signed a letter in support of a Harvard University professor being prosecuted by the U.S. government on charges he lied about his connections with the Chinese government.

Seven Nobel Prize winners are among the dozens of scientists asking why the university is not defending Charles Lieber against the charges.

“Professor Lieber is one of the great scientists of his generation,” the letter reads.

“In the name of combating economic espionage, the Department of Justice has increasingly scrutinized members of the academic community. Several of its investigations reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of modern science, in which open-source practices make discoveries available to all.”

Lieber, the former chair of Harvard chemistry and chemical biology department, and considered a pioneer in nanotechnology, was charged in January 2020 and indicted in July for allegedly lying about research funding while participating in China's Thousand Talents Program, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) said last year.

He is accused of lying to federal authorities in 2018 and 2019 about his involvement in the program, a recruitment plan designed to attract high-level scientists to advance the China technology industry, and his affiliation with the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT).

"Under the terms of Lieber's three-year contract, WUT allegedly paid Lieber a salary of up to $50,000 USD per month, living expenses of up to 1 million Chinese Yuan (approximately $158,000 USD at the time) and awarded him more than $1.5 million to establish a research lab at WUT," DOJ said in a release.

Lieber faces up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000.

“Despite his standing in the scientific community — or perhaps because of it — he has become the target of a tragically misguided government campaign that is discouraging U.S. scientists from collaborating with peers in other countries, particularly China,” the letter supporting Lieber states. “In so doing, it is threatening not only the United States’ position as a world leader in academic research, but science itself.”

In January, dozens of scientists signed a similar letter in support of Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Gang Chen, who was indicted on similar charges, specifically failing to disclose ties with China.

“We are troubled that the complaint against Professor Chen vilifies what should be considered normal academic and research activities, including promoting MIT’s mission of global education,” wrote the scientists in a petition on, which has garnered over 1,000 signatures of support.

“The USA’s greatest asset for fostering innovation and attracting the brightest minds is the academic freedom and openness of American science praised throughout the world.... The persecution or burdening of scientists for their interactions and collaborations will come at a great cost of lost ingenuity and decline of our global leadership in science and technology,” the petition states.

Lieber has filed suit against Harvard University, saying it should pay for his legal expenses. The university has contended that it is not responsible for those costs.

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