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A Harvard scientist, accused of lying about his links to China, goes on trial

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The trial of a prominent Harvard University scientist begins today in Boston. The defendant, Charles Lieber, is accused of lying about his ties to China. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas reports.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Professor Charles Lieber has been at Harvard University for some three decades. Over his storied career, he's established himself as one of the world's leading researchers in nanotechnology. So his arrest by the FBI in January of 2020 came as a shock. The case against Lieber is part of the Justice Department's China Initiative, which aims to counter Beijing's theft of American technology and secrets. Michael Atkinson is a former federal prosecutor who's tracking the department's efforts.

MICHAEL ATKINSON: I think that this is the highest-profile action trial anyways to arise from the Department of Justice's China Initiative.

LUCAS: Prosecutors say Lieber secretly took part in a Chinese government initiative that aims to lure topflight scientific talent to China and was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in return. At the same time, Lieber was receiving millions of dollars in grants from the U.S. government, grants that require recipients to disclose collaboration with foreign researchers. When asked about his China ties, prosecutors say Lieber lied to investigators and denied having any. He also allegedly failed to disclose his Chinese earnings on his U.S. taxes. Lieber is the most prominent scientist to be charged under the China Initiative. Many of the other researchers have been ethnically Chinese, which has led critics to accuse the government of racial profiling, something the government denies. Still, Atkinson says the Justice Department appears to be increasingly sensitive to criticism about cases targeting academics, in part because of setbacks, including the recent acquittal of a Tennessee professor. He says the outcome of Lieber's trial could help determine whether prosecutors pursue such cases in the future.

ATKINSON: It would not surprise me if an acquittal of Dr. Lieber resulted in far fewer criminal actions targeting U.S. academics.

LUCAS: Lieber has pleaded not guilty to all charges. His trial opens today with jury selection. Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.