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Renowned Harvard scientist pleads not guilty to lying about ties to university in China

Charles Lieber.
Charles Lieber.Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe

A world-renowned Harvard nanoscientist pleaded not guilty Tuesday to federal charges alleging he lied about his ties to a university in China.

Charles Lieber, 61, entered his plea in US District Court in Boston via video-conference to two counts of making false statements to investigators. Each count carries a maximum prison term of up to five years and a fine of up to $250,000, prosecutors said.

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 was indicted in the closely watched case last week.

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No details of the allegations were discussed during Tuesday’s brief arraignment. Lieber wore a dark blazer and collared shirt and slowly answered “not guilty” twice when a clerk asked for his plea to the charges.

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.

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.

His lawyer, Marc L. Mukasey, said last week that his client’s being wrongly accused.

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"The government has this wrong,” Mukasey said via e-mail. “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.”

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.

Lieber’s next court date is slated for July 30 at 2 p.m. Should the case go to trial, the government anticipates it will last about a week, with prosecutors calling approximately 10 witnesses, Assistant US Attorney Jason A. Casey said during Tuesday’s arraignment.

Deirdre Fernandes of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.