I have previously blogged about the recent interest of the federal regulatory and law enforcement community in scholars who collaborate with Chinese institutions. January 2020 has increased the public profile of these investigations with the felony indictment against the chairman of the chemistry department at Harvard. He has been charged with lying to federal officials, and he was arrested and detained pending a hearing. This is a very aggressive approach, particularly for a scholar of such prominence who has spent his entire life in the US and has no obvious reason to flee. He only faces minimal sentence guidelines of under a year, according to news reports.
One can only speculate that the Justice Department is trying to deter other scholars who intend to be casual with reporting their Chinese connections to Government officials.
I don’t know what Professor Lieber has done that focused the attention of authorities onto him. His field is “nanowires” and I do not know what possible applications in defense technology exist. But I am disturbed that, unless he is intentionally assisting the Chinese to develop technology that can threaten us, that he faces a felony charge and arrest. Undoubtedly, more will be shared by the federal prosecutor at his bond hearing.
If Lieber is not sharing technology that threatens our national security however, and he merely made mistakes in filling out paperwork disclosures and was a bit casual when asked about it, the policy of charging him with a felony seems like a poor one. We should not use the criminal justice system to promote more careful adherence to regulatory compliance by well meaning people. We can require more education and impose civil fines. But felony prosecutions should be reserved for people who know they are doing very bad things. We should not prosecute to make a point and scare others. That is the sort of thing we expect from the authoritarian government in China, not our own.
Read the Wall Street Journal article, “Harvard Chemistry Chairman Under Investigation Is a Giant of His Field”.