A year later, Chen was arrested on suspicion of federal subsidy fraud and publicly accused of disloyalty to the U.S. — a charge normally brought in espionage cases, not subsidy fraud, as Chen’s defense team pointed out in its attempt to officially sanction U.S. Attorneys for the statement. Chen was eventually charged with three counts of wire fraud, providing false information and failing to file a foreign bank account report.
But the crux of the case was whether the nanotechnologist had disclosed contracts, appointments and awards from entities in the People’s Republic of China, including a Chinese talent program and more than $19 million in funding from the Chinese government while receiving federal grants from the Department of Energy.
That question became less important when an Energy Department official confirmed those grant requests in 2017, when Chen filed His application did not require him to disclose positions in China, but such disclosure would not have affected his grants, the Wall Street Journal first reported.
The money at the heart of the fraud allegations – $25 million – was intended for MIT to support a new collaborative research center at China’s Southern University of Science and Technology, and not for Chen personally. “While Professor Chen is the first MIT faculty director, this is not an individual collaboration; it’s a department supported by the institute,” said MIT President Raphael Reif in a letter to the MIT community last year.
As one of the most prominent scientists indicted under the initiative, Chen’s case attracted widespread attention. MIT faculty members wrote an open letter in support of the scientist, which also reflected the academic community’s broader concerns about the criminalization of standard academic activities. “In many ways, the complaint against Gang Chen is a complaint against all of us, an affront to every citizen who values science and scientific enterprise,” they wrote.
With Chen’s charges all but certain to be dismissed, six more research integrity cases remain pending. Four are due to appear in court this spring. Meanwhile, a growing number of disparate groups from academic associations, civil rights organizations, lawmakers, and even former officials who helped shape the program are calling for either an end to the program or at least a targeting of academics.
The Justice Department is “reviewing our approach to countering threats from the PRC government,” said Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle MIT Technology Review in an email. “We expect to complete the review and provide additional information in the coming weeks.” He referred questions about Chen’s case to the US Attorney’s office in Boston, which has not yet responded to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, on Jan. 4, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy released updated guidance on strengthening protections of American research and development from foreign interference, which included additional details on disclosure requirements for principal investigators.
As for Chen, “He looks forward to solving the criminal matter as soon as possible,” his attorney Robert Fisher told MIT Technology Review.
Additional reporting by Jess Aloe.