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MIT president and faculty members defend professor arrested for China ties

MIT faculty member Gang Chen was indicted earlier this week for wire fraud and tax violations in failing to disclose his financial ties to China.
MIT faculty member Gang Chen was indicted earlier this week for wire fraud and tax violations in failing to disclose his financial ties to China.MIT

MIT President L. Rafael Reif and nearly a 100 faculty members on Friday sought to defend Gang Chen, a professor who was indicted earlier this week for wire fraud and tax violations in failing to disclose his financial ties to China.

Federal prosecutors allege that Chen, 56, a naturalized US citizen who was born in China, failed to disclose contracts, appointments, and awards from various entities in China when applying for a grant from the US Department of Energy. Investigators have alleged that Chen is part of the Communist government’s efforts to steal US technology and know-how. Chen was arrested last week and released on bond. He was formally indicted by a grand jury earlier this week. Chen has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

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In court documents, among several allegations, federal investigators said Chen received $29 million of foreign funding, including $19 million from China’s Southern University of Science and Technology, or SUSTech.

But in a letter Friday, Reif said that the SUSTech collaboration was one backed by MIT in 2018. MIT’s agreement with SUSTech called for the Chinese university to provide $25 million to MIT over five years, including $19 million for “collaborative research and educational activities.”

“While Professor Chen is its inaugural MIT faculty director, this is not an individual collaboration; it is a departmental one, supported by the Institute,” Reif said. “These funds are about advancing the work of a group of colleagues, and the research and educational mission of MIT.”

Reif’s message did not address the other accusations against Chen, including his alleged failure to disclose to the IRS in 2018 that he had a bank account in the People’s Republic of China that held more than $10,000.

Separately, 100 MIT faculty members also penned a letter to Reif urging him to continue backing Chen and questioned the government’s case against the professor and the larger effort to target academics with ties to China.

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“In many respects, the defense of Gang Chen is the defense of the scientific enterprise that we all hold dear,” the letter, which circulated on social media, reads. “We are all Gang Chen.”

The more public pushback by academics comes as the US Department of Justice is weighing whether to offer scientists and researchers amnesty if they disclose past foreign funding, according to a Wall Street Journal report Friday.

In recent months, Justice officials have circulated a draft proposal that would remove the threat of punishment if academics acknowledged their foreign financial ties, giving the US government a better understanding of the scope of foreign funding and allowing officials to focus on those who posed the most serious national security risks, the Journal reported.

Dating back to the Obama administration, government officials have been deeply concerned about the Communist country’s efforts to overtake the US in science and technology by stealing research conducted on American college campuses and luring academics to China. But many US scientists have complained that federal authorities failed to understand that research is a collaborative process that crosses international boundaries and the aggressive prosecution of academics is restricting innovation.

Under the Trump administration, the US Attorney’s Office in Boston has made several high-profile arrests of academics from local colleges over their ties to China.

Last year, Harvard University Professor Charles Lieber, a nanotechnology pioneer, was charged with failing to disclose financial ties to a Chinese government recruiting program and cheating on his federal taxes.

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US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling warned last week after Chen’s arrest that the Chinese government “would rather siphon off US technology instead of doing the work themselves.”

“In pursuit of that goal, the Chinese government targets US researchers for recruitment. The US government has a right to know whether its research dollars, public tax dollars, are funding research by people who are also receiving substantial sums from a foreign power,” Lelling said at the time.

Lelling’s office declined to comment on an ongoing case Friday.

Yoel Fink, an MIT materials science professor who started the faculty letter to Reif, said most American scientists understand that the Chinese government is a global rival. But they are concerned that the US government’s strategy is to turn minor mistakes by academics into a case of criminal espionage, destroying the careers of leading researchers and chilling the types of collaboration that spark scientific breakthroughs, Fink said.

“I see routine activities that have been criminalized,” Fink said. “Who knows who’s next?”



Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.