The chairman of Harvard’s department of chemistry and chemical biology was arrested and charged Tuesday with lying about his links to a Chinese university, the latest case to surface in the US government’s crackdown on suspected espionage and scientific theft.
Federal authorities said Charles Lieber, a prominent nanoscientist and a prolific inventor and entrepreneur, received hundreds of thousands of dollars from his Chinese connections. He shuffled into a Boston federal courtroom in shackles Tuesday to face charges that stunned the area’s scientific community.
"The Chinese government‘s goal … is to replace the United States as the world superpower and it’s breaking the law to get there,” Joseph R. Bonavolonta, the FBI special agent in charge of the bureau’s Boston office, said at a news conference. China “wants what we have so they can gain the upper hand,” he added.
The arrest came as two Chinese nationals were charged separately in connection with aiding the Chinese government, including a cancer researcher who allegedly stole research specimens from his lab at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and tried to smuggle them in his suitcase bound for China. Zaosong Zheng has been detained since Dec. 30 and was indicted last week.
"Chinese economic espionage and theft is a real and daily occurrence that we must begin to confront,” said US Attorney Andrew Lelling.
Lieber, 60, will remain in federal custody until a hearing on Thursday. His lawyer, Peter Levitt, declined to comment.
The case stretches back to 2011, when a professor at a leading Chinese university e-mailed a contract to Lieber. He told Lieber he had been recommended for a global recruitment program, part of the communist government’s “Thousand Talents Plan” to lure high-level scientific talent and, in some cases, reward them for stealing proprietary information, federal investigators said.
A few days later, Lieber traveled to China’s Wuhan University of Technology to sign a long-term agreement. When the terms were finalized, he would be paid $50,000 a month, $158,000 in living expenses, and $1.5 million to establish a research lab at the Chinese university.
But Lieber kept that secret from Harvard, according to federal prosecutors, and when questioned by Department of Defense investigators in 2018, denied he had ever participated in the Thousand Talents program.
Harvard officials said Lieber, who was arrested at his university office, had been placed on paid administrative leave.
“The charges brought by the U.S. government against Professor Lieber are extremely serious,” the university said in a statement. "Harvard is cooperating with federal authorities, including the National Institutes of Health, and is initiating its own review of the alleged misconduct.”
Prosecutors said Lieber lied to the National Institutes of Health about his affiliation with the Chinese university and his involvement in the Thousands Talents Plan, which they described as “one of the most prominent Chinese Talent recruitment plans that are designed to attract, recruit, and cultivate high-level scientific talent in furtherance of China’s scientific development, economic prosperity, and national security."
Such plans seek to “lure Chinese overseas talent and foreign experts to bring their knowledge and experience to China and reward individuals for stealing proprietary information,” prosecutors said.
Lieber is charged with one count of making a materially false, fictitious, and fraudulent statement. If convicted, he faces up to five years in federal prison and a maximum fine of $250,000, the government said.
Authorities said they executed search warrants at Lieber’s office and Lexington home.
Lieber appeared uncertain where to sit when he was brought into court Tuesday, his wrists cuffed behind his back. He wore a faded blue polo shirt tucked into cargo pants and skimmed through a 17-page affidavit detailing the allegations against him. Lovitt said during the hearing that it was the first time Lieber had seen the document.
Robert Langer, a chemical engineer at MIT and a prolific inventor and entrepreneur, said he knows Lieber and was startled by the news.
“I’ve always thought of him as an outstanding scientist,” Langer said in an e-mail. “I’ve had some of his former students in my lab a number of years ago, and we collaborated a bit a number of years ago.”
Lieber helped pioneer the placement of nanowires that could go into a tissue-engineered heart and sense how the organ is functioning, Langer said. Since the 1960s, scientists have struggled to develop working artificial hearts — first mechanical ones and more recently a living organ manufactured for transplantation in people with severe cardiac disease.
Since 2008, Lieber has led the Lieber Research Group at Harvard, which specializes in nanoscience and has collected more than $15 million in grant funding from NIH and the Department of Defense, prosecutors said.
Grant recipients must disclose any significant foreign financial conflicts of interest, including funding from foreign governments, prosecutors said. Lieber allegedly lied to the government in 2018 and 2019, prosecutors said.
Two days after the April 2018 interview with Defense Department investigators, Lieber e-mailed a research associate affiliated with the Lieber Research Group, according to an affidavit filed in the case.
“Can you also provide me with the link/info to [China Academy of Sciences] where I am listed as directing (?) that lab at Wuhan?” Lieber wrote. “I lost a lot of sleep worrying about all of these things last night and want to start taking steps to correct sooner than later. I will be careful about what I discuss with Harvard University, and none of this will be shared with government investigators at this time.”
The Thousand Talents Program has recently come under scrutiny. A report from the Senate Homeland Security’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations alleged that the program encourages researchers in the United States to transmit their knowledge and research to China, which “unfairly uses the American research and expertise it obtains for its own economic and military gain.”
The NIH has opened more than 180 investigations into potential violations involving foreign influence in US research. An FBI agent said Tuesday that his agency is working on similar cases in all 50 states.
In an indictment handed down Tuesday, prosecutors also charged Yanqing Ye, a lieutenant in China’s People’s Liberation Army, who allegedly acted as “an agent of a foreign government,” and Zaosong Zheng, a former cancer researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who allegedly smuggled biological research to China.
Ye is still in China and Zheng, 30, was arrested in December at Logan Airport. Zheng’s arrest was made public at that time.
Lelling declined to say whether the three defendants’ cases were connected.
Ye, 29, faces one count each of visa fraud, making false statements, acting as an agent of a foreign government, and conspiracy. On her visa applications, she lied about her ongoing military service as a lieutenant in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
“It is further alleged that while studying at Boston University’s (BU) Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biomedical Engineering from October 2017 to April 2019, Ye continued to work as a PLA Lieutenant completing numerous assignments from PLA officers such as conducting research, assessing US military websites and sending U.S. documents and information to China," officials said.
Jonathan Saltzman of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
This is a breaking news story that will be updated. Martin Finucane of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.