How an MIT scientist of Chinese origin got caught in US spy dragnet

US prosecutors recently dismissed all charges against Gang Chen, a professor of nanotechnology

Gang Chen, a professor of nanotechnology, pleaded not guilty to all charges, while his employer, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), had indicated that the funding in question was for the university, rather than for Chen personally

US prosecutors recently recommended that the Department of Justice dismiss all charges against a scientist of Chinese origin, ending a two-year case stemming from accusations that he hid funding from Chinese entities on grant disclosure forms.

Gang Chen, a professor of nanotechnology, pleaded not guilty to all charges, while his employer, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), had indicated that the funding in question was for the university, rather than for Chen personally. MIT is paying his legal fees and declined to comment on a pending court case.

Research integrity cases centre on students and academics who have been accused of failing to fully disclose relationships with Chinese entities, primarily on grant or visa forms.

Chen’s problems began in January 2020, as he was returning to the US from a university-backed trip to China with other MIT faculty and students. Questioned at Boston Logan International Airport, he was released after his phone and computer were confiscated.

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A year later, Chen was arrested on suspicion of federal grant fraud and publicly accused of disloyalty to the US — a charge typically levelled in espionage cases, not grant fraud, as Chen’s defence team pointed out in its attempt to formally sanction the US attorney’s office for the statement. Chen was ultimately charged with three counts of wire fraud, false statements, and failure to file a report on a foreign bank account.

The main argument of the case was whether the nanotechnologist had disclosed contracts, appointments, and awards from entities in China, including a Chinese talent programme, and more than $19 million in funding from the Chinese government, while receiving US grant funding from the Department of Energy (DoE).

That question became less important when a DoE official confirmed that grant requirements in 2017, when Chen submitted his application, had not stipulated that he must disclose posts in China, but that disclosure would not have affected his grants, as the Wall Street Journal first reported.

The money at the centerpiece of the fraud allegations — $25 million — was intended for MIT to support a new collaborative research centre at China’s Southern University of Science and Technology, rather than Chen individually. “While Professor Chen is its inaugural MIT faculty director, this is not an individual collaboration; it is a departmental one, supported by the Institute,” MIT president Rafael Reif explained in a letter to the MIT community last year.

Chen’s case received widespread attention because he is one of the most prominent scientists charged under the ‘China Initiative’. 

The ‘initiative’ was started in 2018 to crack down on economic and scientific espionage by China. Many of the prosecutions, like the case against Chen, do not allege espionage or theft of information, but failing to disclose Chinese affiliations in grant applications to US agencies. 

MIT faculty members wrote an open letter supporting the scholar that also reflected the broader concerns of the academic community about the criminalisation of routine academic activity. “In many respects, the complaint against Gang Chen is a complaint against all of us, an affront to any citizen who values science and the scientific enterprise,” they wrote.

With the charges against Chen all but certain to be dismissed, six more research integrity cases remain pending. Four are scheduled to go to trial soon. Meanwhile, an increasing number of critics, including scientific associations, civil rights organisations and lawmakers, have been calling for an end to the programme, or at least to its targeting of academics.

The Justice Department is “reviewing our approach to countering threats posed by the PRC government”, department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle told MIT Technology Review in an email. “We anticipate completing the review and providing additional information in the coming weeks.”

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