BOSTON — Charles M. Lieber, the chair of Harvard’s department of chemistry and chemical biology, was charged on Tuesday with making false statements about money he had received from a Chinese government-run program, part of a broad-ranging F.B.I. effort to root out theft of biomedical research from American laboratories.
Dr. Lieber, a leader in the field of nanoscale electronics, was one of three Boston-area scientists accused on Tuesday of working on behalf of China. His case involves work with the Thousand Talents Program, a state-run program that seeks to draw talent educated in other countries.
American officials are investigating hundreds of cases of suspected theft of intellectual property by visiting scientists, nearly all of them Chinese nationals or of Chinese descent. Some are accused of obtaining patents in China based on work that is funded by the United States government, and others of setting up laboratories in China that secretly duplicated American research.
Dr. Lieber, who was arrested on Tuesday, stands out among the accused scientists, because he is neither Chinese nor of Chinese descent. And as a department head at Harvard, he is widely published and more prominent than most of the other scientists who have been accused.
In 2017 he was named a University Professor, Harvard’s highest faculty rank, one of only 26 professors to hold that status. The same year, he earned the National Institutes of Health Director’s Pioneer Award for inventing syringe-injectable mesh electronics that can integrate with the brain.
Harvard’s president at the time, Drew G. Faust, called him “an extraordinary scientist whose work has transformed nanoscience and nanotechnology and has led to a remarkable range of valuable applications that improve the quality of people’s lives.”
Dr. Lieber has made no secret of his work with Chinese partners, joining five senior Chinese officials and scientists in 2013 to found the WUT-Harvard Joint Nano Key Laboratory at the Wuhan University of Technology.
Federal prosecutors said on Tuesday that Dr. Lieber made false representation to questions about his participation in the Chinese program to the United States Department of Defense. He is also charged with misrepresenting his involvement in Thousand Talents and his affiliation with Wuhan University of Technology to officials at the National Institutes of Health.
According to charging documents, Dr. Lieber was paid up to $50,000 per month in salary and $150,000 per year in living expenses by Wuhan University of Technology. He was also awarded more than $1.5 million by the university and the Chinese government to build a laboratory in Wuhan.
Researchers are legally obligated to disclose such payments to their academic institutions.
A representative for Dr. Lieber could not immediately be reached for comment.
A second person charged, Zaosong Zheng, was a Harvard-affiliated cancer researcher who prosecutors said was caught with 21 vials of cells stolen from a laboratory at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital.
Dr. Zheng admitted that he planned to turbocharge his career by publishing the results in China, under his own name, according to federal prosecutors. He was charged with making false statements, and is being held without bail in Massachusetts, after a judge determined that he was a flight risk.
Yanqing Ye, who had been studying at Boston University until last spring, was also charged on Tuesday, accused of lying to authorities about her status as a lieutenant in the People’s Liberation Army. Ms. Ye, who was charged with visa fraud, making false statements, acting as an agent of a foreign government and conspiracy, is in China and was not arrested.
Launched in 2008, its Thousand Talents Program is an effort to recruit Chinese and foreign academics and entrepreneurs. According to a report in the China Daily, new recruits receive 1 million yuan, or about $146,000, from the central government, and a pledge of 10 million yuan for their ongoing research from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The recruitment flows both ways. Researchers of Chinese descent make up nearly half of the work force in American research laboratories, in part because American-born scientists are drawn to the private sector and less interested in academic careers.