A consequential verdict for international collaboration

Holden Thorp

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Nearly a year ago, when I heard that the esteemed Harvard chemist Charles Lieber was arrested in his office, I was completely shocked. But as the details of his story unfolded, I could foresee a sad outcome. Last month, just before Christmas, a jury found him guilty of lying to the US government about participating in China’s Thousand Talents program, which recruits foreign scientists.

I have known Charlie Lieber for 35 years. I first met him the day I arrived at the California Institute of Technology for graduate school. It was early on a Sunday morning, and he and I were the only people in Harry Gray’s lab at that time on a weekend (I was just dropping off my stuff). When I was a grad student, he made me think about how science is done and how much work it is. His wife, Jenny, was a graduate student in the Gray lab, and she and a few of us would play cards while our chromatography experiments ran and our solvents were pumping through the columns. Charlie never played cards with us. He was all work, all the time.

When Charlie started as a faculty member at Columbia University, I was doing experiments down the hall with Nick Turro. I would often see Charlie running to his lab shouting, “STM! STM! STM!” He was assembling one of the first scanning tunneling microscopes and using it to understand superconductivity. His first paper on the topic was published in Science. Charlie’s career was a rocket after that; it was no surprise when he moved to Harvard.

Somewhere along the way, I heard that Charlie grew enormous pumpkins. It was little wonder that if he decided to grow large pumpkins, he would produce the largest one in Massachusetts. He simply did everything with the highest possible ambition.

I was not surprised that Charlie was targeted in the US Department of Justice’s China Initiative (an effort to identify scientists who give sensitive economic and trade secret information to China). He has had many dealings with Chinese universities through which he recruited outstanding graduate students and postdocs. But when I heard that he brought home a paper bag containing $60,000 dollars from the Wuhan University of Technology, didn’t declare it as income, and then lied about it, I knew he was in some kind of trouble. For these actions, he deserved to be convicted, but my heart still breaks for Charlie and Jenny and their family.

Many questions have been asked about why Charlie did this. I corresponded with several reporters who covered the story, and none seems to have gotten a convincing answer. Bringing home $60,000 in cash is enough to get you in trouble, but it’s not a life-changing amount of money for a big-time Harvard professor. I can only guess that Charlie thought that he could enhance his science through his relationship with the Wuhan University of Technology: He could get more outstanding graduate students into his lab in the US, and also continue working with them in China. The institute offered him a close relationship, and he signed up without paying enough attention to the details. A guy who grows giant pumpkins and works 6 days a week doesn’t want to do anything other than more and better science. It’s been reported that Charlie hoped to impress the Nobel Prize committee through a robust relationship with China.

Charlie was not accused of espionage or sharing trade secrets. He was targeted for his association with a Chinese academic institution. The ramifications of Charlie’s conviction are therefore profound. The China Initiative was already having a chilling effect on international collaboration. With this verdict, even more scientists in the US will avoid interacting with Chinese colleagues for fear of ending up like Charlie. That’s not good for scientific progress, which relies on the open collaboration across fields and cultures.


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