Federal authorities arrested MIT professor and researcher Gang Chen on suspicions of undisclosed affiliations with the Chinese government that allowed him to divest $19 million in federal grants from U.S. taxpayers’ wallet, The New York Times reports. Six days later on January 20, he was indicted on “two counts of wire fraud, one count of failing to file a foreign bank account report (FBAR) and one count of making a false statement in a tax return.”
Chen’s case is the latest in a collection of charges against 10 U.S. and six visiting academics in just 2019-2020 alone from the Department of Justice’s two-year-old China Initiative, established to counter Chinese espionage in the form of research scientists passing sensitive U.S. technology and information on to China. Chen is one of many researchers in America who originate from China.
The China Initiative was a key topic of a letter from dozens of AAPI advocacy groups and scientific organizations to President Joe Biden earlier this month. They urged him to “immediately end the ‘China Initiative,’ which is based upon the unlawful and bigoted premise that scientists of Chinese descent should be investigated without evidence of wrongdoing, based simply on their ancestry.”
Since Chen’s arrest, a letter circulating among MIT faculty has garnered over 170 signatures in support of arguments that the crimes Chen is accused of are routine activities conducted by many researchers and academics, such as reviewing grant proposals or writing letters of recommendation. “We are troubled that the complaint against Professor Chen vilifies what would be considered normal academic and research activities, including promoting MIT’s global mission,” the letter states.
The letter also urges that MIT continue to provide support to Chen and, by extension, the scientific community at large. “In many respects the defense of Professor Chen is the defense of the scientific enterprise that we all hold dear — we are all Gang Chen,” the letter concludes.
In a GoFundMe campaign established by Chen’s daughter, she explains that, “While MIT has agreed to pay my father’s legal expenses, there will undoubtedly be additional expenses for our family that extend beyond this agreement.” The campaign has since amassed over $400,000, and any unused funds will be donated to organizations that handle similar cases.
Beyond offering to cover Chen’s legal expenses, MIT has released an official statement regarding allegations against Chen that involve a $19 million fund from China’s Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech). However, according to President of the University L. Rafael Reif, the $19 million was part of a highly publicized $25 million fund agreement between MIT and SUSTech — a collaboration of which Chen was the public face.
“[T]hese funds are about advancing the work of a group of colleagues, and the research and educational mission of MIT,” Reif wrote. “The SUSTech relationship is one of many faculty-led collaborations MIT maintains with academic institutions.”
The letter written and signed by MIT faculty similarly argue against the SUSTech charge, stating that, “Singling [Chen] and his research group out as the ‘sole’ recipient is simply wrong. The partnership with SUSTech was approved and overseen by MIT at the highest levels.”
The criminal indictment of days later did not mention the $19 million fund despite its prominence in the criminal complaint, according to The New York Times.
For many, Chen’s arrest and indictment signal an alarming trend away from open scientific inquiry, thus stymieing scientific and technological progress and innovation. In an article for The Conversation, Associate Professor at Ohio State University Caroline Wagner wrote, “Scrutinizing Chinese researchers as if their actions automatically deserve suspicion threatens to poison the relationship between the U.S. and China, the rising world power in science and technology. I contend that cutting off this relationship makes the American innovation system more vulnerable, not safer.”
Wagner continued on to acknowledge the role of global communication with research, noting, “One-third of Nobel Prizes awarded to U.S.-based scientists have gone to immigrants. People who spend time in the U.S. and later return home often continue to link to their American counterparts, creating a global network of connections with broad global (and national) benefits.”
It is this complex network of international researchers and communication that crosses borders that both fosters innovation and complicates issues of national security. In an interview with Chemistry World, Materials Science Professor at MIT Yoel Fink said, “Because America’s competitiveness depends so heavily on scientific and technological talent from abroad, its national security is harmed by the message that the US government will question the loyalty of foreign scientists.”
With a new administration in the White House, Fink has hopes for a shift away from the era of the Trump administration’s China Initiative. “We have an opportunity to reset the dialogue … to not be adversarial but to actually work with the feds to increase the competitive-edge of the country,” Fink said.
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