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Harvard scientist indicted in China case

Charles Lieber, former chair of Harvard’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, was arrested in January.
Charles Lieber, former chair of Harvard’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, was arrested in January.Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe

A federal grand jury in Boston on Tuesday indicted a world-renowned Harvard nanoscientist on charges of lying about his ties to a university in China, prosecutors said.

The indictment was handed up against Charles Lieber, 61, on two counts of making false statements to investigators, according to legal filings and US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling’s office.

Marc L. Mukasey, a lawyer for Lieber, said Tuesday via e-mail that his client is being wrongly accused.

“The government has this wrong,” Mukasey said. “Professor Lieber has dedicated his life to science and to his students. Not money, not fame, just his science and his students. He is the victim in this case, not the perpetrator. But he’s also a fighter - he always has been - so we’re not taking this lying down. We’re fighting back. And when justice is done, Charlie’s good name will be restored and the scientific community again will be able to benefit from his intellect and passion.”

Lieber, former chair of Harvard’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, was arrested in January at his Harvard office. He’s currently free on $1 million bond and will be arraigned at a later date.

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The professor, whom Harvard placed on paid administrative leave after his arrest, allegedly 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.

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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.

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 and 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 in January that the bureau is working on similar cases in all 50 states.



Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe. Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.