How a Chinese-born MIT scientist got caught in an American spy net

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US prosecutors recently dismissed all charges against nanotechnology professor Gang Chen

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

U.S. prosecutors recently recommended that the Justice Department dismiss all charges against a Chinese-born scientist, ending a two-year case stemming from accusations he hid funds 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), said the funding in question was for the university, rather than Chen personally. . MIT is paying its legal fees and declined to comment on an ongoing court case.

The research integrity cases involve students and scholars who have been accused of failing to fully disclose their relationships with Chinese entities, mostly on scholarship or visa forms.

Chen’s troubles began in January 2020, when he returned to the United States from a university-supported trip to China with other MIT professors 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 United States – a charge typically leveled in espionage cases, not grant fraud, as Chen’s defense team pointed this out in their attempt to formally sanction the US Attorney’s office. for the statement. Chen was eventually charged with three counts of wire fraud, misrepresentation and failure to file a report on a foreign bank account.

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

This issue became less important when a DoE official confirmed that the grant requirements in 2017, when Chen applied, did not stipulate that he had to disclose his positions in China, but that disclosure would not have not affect its grants, as the Wall Street Journal first reported. .

The money at the center of the fraud allegations – $25 million – was intended for MIT to support a new collaborative research center at the Southern China University of Science and Technology, rather than Chen individually. “Although Professor Chen is his first faculty director at MIT, this is not a one-on-one collaboration; it is a department, supported by the Institute,” explained MIT President Rafael Reif in a letter to the MIT community last year.

Chen’s case has received wide attention because he is one of the most prominent scientists charged under the “China Initiative”.

The “initiative” was launched in 2018 to crack down on economic and scientific espionage by China. Many lawsuits, like the case against Chen, do not allege espionage or theft of information, but fail to disclose Chinese affiliations in grant applications to US agencies.

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

With the charges against Chen almost certain to be dismissed, six other research integrity cases remain unresolved. Four are to be tried soon. Meanwhile, a growing number of critics, including scientific associations, civil rights organizations and lawmakers, have called for an end to the program, or at least 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 expect to complete the review and provide additional information in the coming weeks.”

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