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Bail set at $1 million for Harvard scientist charged in China case

Charles Lieber, a world-renowned nanoscientist and the chair of Harvard University’s chemistry and chemical biology department, must surrender his passport and stay in Mass.

Charles Lieber (center) appeared in federal court in Boston Thursday.
Charles Lieber (center) appeared in federal court in Boston Thursday.Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe

The world-renowned Harvard nanoscientist charged with lying about his ties to China appeared in court in handcuffs and an orange jumpsuit Thursday as a judge set his bail at $1 million, confiscated his passport, and ordered him to remain in Massachusetts as the case against him continues.

Charles Lieber, chair of Harvard University’s chemistry and chemical biology department, appeared before Magistrate Judge Marianne B. Bowler, who also ordered Lieber’s wife to turn over her passport. Lieber was also ordered to have no contact with three Chinese universities.

Lieber was arrested earlier this week at his Harvard office, and charged with lying about his links to a Chinese university. Lieber has become the most high profile example of the federal government’s crackdown on suspected academic espionage and scientific theft.

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Lieber, 60, is alleged to have concealed his participation in China’s Thousand Talents program, which aims to recruit the world’s top scientists and academics and help that country make significant leaps in technology and innovation.

The US government has warned that the recruitment program is an effort by China to steal American proprietary information. Federal agencies are aggressively probing financial ties that American-funded scientists may have to foreign governments, especially China, and whether they and their institutions are appropriately disclosing those connections.

According the federal investigators, a professor at a Chinese university approached Lieber, who is a prolific inventor, in 2011. 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.

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Harvard has placed Lieber on paid administrative leave.

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 federal government said.

Federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense, require researchers who received grant funding to disclose significant financial conflicts of interest and foreign funding.

Lieber has led the Lieber Research Group at Harvard since 2008 has collected more than $15 million in federal funding from the NIH and defense department, prosecutors said.

The NIH has opened more than 180 investigations into potential violations involving foreign influence in US research. An FBI agent said earlier this week that the agency is working on similar cases in all 50 states.

On the same day as Lieber’s arrest, federal authorities also announced separate charges against two Chinese nationals who are alleged to have helped the Chinese government.

The US government has accused Zaosong Zheng, a cancer researcher, of stealing specimens from his lab at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and trying to smuggle them in his suitcase bound for China. Zaosong Zheng has been detained since Dec. 30 and was indicted last week.

Prosecutors also charged Yanqing Ye, a lieutenant in China’s People’s Liberation Army, for allegedly acting as “an agent of a foreign government.”

Ye, 29, who was a Boston University student, 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).

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On Thursday, the FBI’s Boston office shared a wanted poster featuring Ye’s picture.

The poster alleges that “while studying at Boston University’s Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biomedical Engineering from October of 2017 to April of 2019, Ye allegedly continued to work as a PLA Lieutenant completing numerous assignments from PLA officers such as conducting research, assessing United States military websites, and sending United States documents and information to China.”

Ye is believed to be back in China, according to the wanted poster.




Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.