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Federal Authorities Charge MIT Professor With Hiding Ties To Chinese Government05:37
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Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

An MIT professor was arrested Thursday morning on federal charges that he failed to disclose ties to the Chinese government as he sought — and was awarded — research grants from the U.S. government.

U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said its charges against Gang Chen — paired with similar charges filed last summer against Harvard chemistry professor Charles Lieber — represent his office's attempt to counter the Chinese government's effort to "siphon off U.S. technology instead of doing the work themselves."

The charges focus on Chen's behavior since 2012, while he was running a laboratory focused on nanotechnology and energy transfer.

Chen served as chair of M.I.T.'s department of mechanical engineering from 2013 to 2018. Meanwhile, his laboratory attracted over $19 million in grants from federal agencies like the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, according to the complaint.

But the federal complaint filed Wednesday alleges that, all the while, Chen was building relationships in China — including an advisory role at SUSTech, a public university in Shenzhen, from which he secured an additional $19 million in grant funding.

Chen was obliged to disclose those ties as potential conflicts of interest both to MIT and to federal granting authorities. But the complaint alleges that he did neither, and even took pains to conceal some of those relationships in his online communication.

A screengrab from the January 13 federal complaint against Gang Chen.
A screengrab from the January 13 federal complaint against Gang Chen.

According to the complaint, the Chinese government has explicitly listed nanotechnology as a research area where it seeks to grow its understanding and capacity.

At a press conference Thursday, Lelling said that Chen's widening network of ties in his native country — like a government advisory post he allegedly accepted in 2014 — indicate that his motives were "not just about greed, but about loyalty to China."

In a statement issued Thursday afternoon, Chen's attorney, Robert Fisher, wrote that his client "has dedicated his life to scientific advancement in mechanical engineering. He loves the United States and looks forward to vigorously defending these allegations."

In his press conference, Lelling also stressed that his office's campaign against Chinese influence in the academy is about "conduct, not ethnicity." Lieber, who pleaded not guilty to similar charges in the summer, was born in the United States.

As he awaits trial, Lieber sued Harvard in October for declining to pay his legal fees.

"It is not illegal to collaborate [in] foreign research," Lelling said. "It is illegal to lie about it." Chen was born in China in 1964, but has been a naturalized American citizen for over 20 years.

"MIT was deeply distressed by the arrest of Professor Gang Chen this morning," said MIT spokeswoman Kimberly Allen. "MIT believes the integrity of research is a fundamental responsibility, and we take seriously concerns about improper influence in U.S. research."

This segment aired on January 14, 2021.

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Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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