Science

U.S. prosecutors said an MIT scientist hid his China ties. Here’s why their case collapsed

For the past year, the U.S. government had argued that Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineering professor Gang Chen broke the law by failing to disclose his ties to China when applying for a grant from the Department of Energy (DOE). But last week, prosecutors abruptly reversed course and dropped all charges against him, telling a federal court on 20 January that the government “can no longer meet its burden of proof at trial.” How did prosecutors get it so wrong?

Chen’s case was one of the highest profile prosecutions of an academic scientist brought under the China Initiative, a controversial government effort to prevent China from stealing federally funded research that has ensnared some two dozen university researchers. Last month, in another prominent case, a jury convicted Harvard University chemist Charles Lieber of failing to disclose his financial ties to China to federal agencies. But Chen’s case never made it to a jury.

In a motion to dismiss, U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins informed U.S. District Court Judge Patti Saris that prosecutors had received “additional information bearing on the materiality of the defendant’s alleged omissions.” But observers say the case crumpled because two of its pillars had fatal flaws. In one instance, prosecutors misinterpreted DOE’s disclosure requirements in 2017, when Chen applied for a $2.7 million grant that loomed large in the case. They also distorted the nature of Chen’s interactions with Chinese institutions and alleged ties that didn’t exist.

“The government’s case often gets stronger after an indictment because it has time to collect additional evidence,” says Chen’s lawyer, Robert Fisher of Nixon Peabody LLP. “But this time their case got progressively worse, until it finally collapsed.”

Chen’s 2-year legal nightmare began in January 2020, 1 year before his arrest, when federal agents questioned him at Boston Logan International Airport after he returned from a family vacation in China. The government alleged that when Chen applied for his DOE grant in March 2017, he didn’t comply with department rules requiring applicants to list “activities outside the United States or partnerships with international collaborators” related to his proposed research, which involved studying how polymers conduct heat. But the application form DOE was using at the time—a broad call for proposals that typically results in hundreds of awards across many fields—did not request that information.

Such collaborations, and the potential security concerns, weren’t yet on DOE’s radar, says Chris Fall, who headed DOE’s science office during former President Donald Trump’s administration and worked on research security issues at the White House under former President Barack Obama. Instead, DOE’s disclosure rules were focused on preventing “duplicative grants, where [DOE was] being asked to fund something that another federal agency was already supporting,” says Fall, now vice president of applied sciences at the MITRE Corporation, a nonprofit that manages several federal research labs.

It was only in October 2020, more than 3 years after Chen applied for his grant, that DOE began to require applicants to disclose one type of foreign collaboration: “participation in foreign government-sponsored talent recruitment programs.” (The new form has a bold box that says: “WARNING: These instructions have been significantly revised.”) Those talent programs, notably China’s Thousand Talents programs, can provide U.S.-based scientists with generous funding to work in the sponsor nation. Although such programs are 10 years old, federal officials recently began to worry U.S. participants could face time and financial conflicts that might jeopardize research integrity.

DOE made the revision after considerable internal discussions, recalls Fall, who notes that the new policy wasn’t prescriptive. “We didn’t spell out what type of partnerships were allowed and which weren’t,” he says. “The office doesn’t have the investigative resources to determine that. We just wanted to make sure they told us what they were doing.”

A related flaw in the government’s case, Fisher says, was its assertion that Chen had made seven “material omissions” on his DOE application about relationships with Chinese institutions. But none had anything to do with Chen’s proposed research, Fisher says. And he says five of the seven alleged collaborations didn’t exist; prosecutors might have derived them from erroneous information posted on the internet.

For example, Fisher says Chen’s alleged participation in a foreign talent program run by the city of Wuhan, China, and a nearby industrial park, dubbed Optics Valley, was based on an offer from those entities that Chen rejected. “He was sent a contract describing his potential involvement and he deleted that provision,” Fisher says. “Nothing ever came of the project.”

One relationship that did exist, Fisher says—advising China’s Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech)—was part of Chen’s official duties at MIT. In 2018, MIT signed a 5-year agreement with SUSTech in which the Chinese university put up $19 million to fund a joint engineering center. And Chen had disclosed his work on that deal on the CV he sent to DOE, Fisher notes.

Chen’s colleagues never doubted his innocence. “It was clear that some of what the government was saying was a blatant lie and that there was no criminal intent,” says Yoel Fink, an MIT materials scientist who helped organize a petition signed by hundreds of academics titled “We are all Gang Chen.” MIT, which placed Chen on leave with pay after his arrest and has paid his legal bills, has welcomed him back. “All of us who know Gang are deeply relieved … and eager for his full return to our community,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif wrote in a statement. “It is difficult to reconcile and accept the pain and anguish that such good people, people we are proud and fortunate to know, have endured over the last 2 years,” Reif added.

Chen was back in his lab the day after the case was dropped, and last week he posted a research paper that thanked MIT “for its support during a difficult time.” His DOE grant was renewed in 2020 and is now being led by a colleague in the mechanical engineering department that Chen once chaired. But Chen “wants nothing more to do with [federal funding],” Fisher says. “Gang has been pretty scarred by the whole experience. He doesn’t plan to work on any more government grants.”

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