On January 14, 2021, Professor Gang Chen, a widely respected scholar, teacher, and member of the MIT faculty since 2001, was arrested by the FBI on allegations of federal grant fraud. President Reif alerted the community the same day, saying that “for all of us who know Gang, this news is surprising, deeply distressing, and hard to understand.” The following day a group of faculty met to discuss the case. Serious questions emerged in that meeting regarding the factual basis of the criminal complaint publicly announced in a press conference at which the US Attorney claimed that Chen “knowingly and willfully defrauded [the public] out of $19 million in federal grants by exploiting our system to enhance China’s research in nanotechnology.” A special agent’s statement on fbi.gov, saying that “he even went as far as recommending several students to participate in various Chinese talent programs,” also struck us as problematic. We decided to raise these concerns to President Reif in an open letter ultimately signed by 201 faculty members from MIT’s five schools.
Time line of the arrest and the response
Professor Chen’s cell phones and computer are confiscated when he returns from a trip to China.
Professor Chen is arrested, search warrants are executed at MIT and the Chen residence, a criminal complaint is filed, and US Attorney Andrew Lelling and an FBI agent announce the criminal complaint at a press conference.
In a letter announcing the arrest to the MIT community, President Reif states that “MIT was deeply distressed by the arrest of Professor Chen.”
Global media reports highlight the government’s fraud allegations.
About 20 faculty members meet online to discuss the allegations. After serious questions are raised about the factual basis of the criminal complaint, the group decides to write an open letter to President Reif.
The open letter is circulated to faculty.
Criminal indictment US v. Chen is filed with US District Court of Massachusetts.
An updated letter signed by more than 100 faculty members is sent to President Reif.
At 6:51 a.m. a Harvard professor posts the letter on social media; it’s soon featured in the Chinese media.
The Wall Street Journal references the letter as part of its “Amnesty” story.
At 4:43 p.m. President Reif explains the collaboration with a Chinese university Chen was leading on MIT’s behalf, clarifying that the $19 million in funding—the centerpiece of the fraud allegations—went to MIT and benefited multiple faculty members and students.
“MIT president and faculty members defend professor arrested for China ties” is published by the Boston Globe at 7:09 p.m.
“A scientist is arrested and academics push back” is published by the New York Times.
“Intense scrutiny of Chinese-born researchers in the US threatens innovation” is published by The Conversation.
“Criminalizing science is really dumb” is published by Bloomberg.
Final version of the open letter is posted on the MIT Faculty Newsletter website.
The number of faculty signatures on the letter nears 200.
WBUR airs “MIT faculty rally around professor charged with concealing China ties.”
“We are all Gang Chen” petition is started by Northwestern faculty on change.org.
Science publishes “US scientists want Congress to look into complaints of racial profiling in China Initiative.”
Lelling, appointed by former US attorney general Jeff Sessions, tenders his resignation to President Biden.
Lelling is reported to join Jones Day, the law firm representing the GOP in challenging the 2020 presidential election results in Pennsylvania.
After a draft of the letter was posted on social media on January 22, media coverage shifted significantly to highlight the extraordinary support for Professor Chen from President Reif and the MIT faculty. The detailed questions that our letter raised began framing the public discourse. This change came not a moment too soon for our colleague, who saw his reputation destroyed and his loyalty questioned.
The brunt of this case is borne primarily by Professor Chen, his family, and his friends. But the impact of the Department of Justice’s “China Initiative”—a campaign launched by former US attorney general Jeff Sessions in 2018 that the DOJ says is meant, among other things, to quash “influence efforts on campus,” trade secret theft, and economic espionage linked to China—reaches far beyond the Chen residence and affects us all. This campaign that our colleague got caught up in appears to be a deliberate attempt to intimidate rather than an effort to increase compliance with disclosures required by federal grant agencies.
We are aware of many MIT faculty members and students of Chinese heritage who feel targeted, fearful, and intimidated. All of us understand the disastrous impact of this campaign on science, on research, and on education—and frankly on the future of this country. We are concerned about the emergence of clear signs that scientists of Chinese heritage are being ethnically profiled; they are in fact loyal US citizens. We view the persecution of researchers of Chinese heritage as damaging to our national interests and to the quality of research in this country. One cannot embrace science and facts while creating an atmosphere of fear for scientists.
MIT’s faculty understand competition. Science and engineering at the level practiced at MIT and other world-class research universities are highly competitive. Competition makes us strong. Our research universities continue to attract global talent that advances domestic science and engineering in the US, which helps create jobs, build our national brain trust, and strengthen our national security. It is not by chance that a major covid-19 vaccine was developed a block from MIT’s campus, where so much research is aimed at generating innovative therapies. Engaging and attracting global talent advances our competitiveness and is truly an American interest.
On MIT’s campus, we are engaged in basic research that is meant to be published. We do not conduct classified or commercially confidential work here. We fully understand and respect the importance of disclosure to federal and other funding agencies; as individuals, and as a community, we spend significant time, energy, and resources to comply with reporting requirements. Complicating matters, the complexity of disclosure forms has grown significantly in recent years, increasing the likelihood of mistakes.
We truly hope that lawmakers of both parties, together with the new US administration, will engage academia in the search for solutions that will appropriately address concerns about illegitimate IP transfer to China. However, bringing the heavy machinery of the federal justice system—such as wire-fraud statutes developed and honed to deal with organized crime—to bear on science, engineering, math, and education is damaging the very same American innovation it seeks to protect. Fear kills creativity and collaboration. Indeed, we have heard anecdotal evidence suggesting that some young Chinese scientists no longer view the US as the best environment in the world for research. The ability to explore and collaborate without fear is precisely what attracts the best minds from around the country and around the world to our universities, making them the global leaders that they are.
We are proud to see the Institute take a strong position in defense of Professor Chen. MIT’s leadership in this matter stands in contrast to other universities that have distanced themselves from or even severed ties with accused members of their own communities. We have been made aware that MIT was in fact supporting Professor Chen well before we all knew about this case, and we wholeheartedly commend President Reif for his courage in doing so.
One cannot embrace science and facts while creating an atmosphere of fear for scientists.
“We are all Gang Chen” has become a rallying cry for the cause of science and academic freedom, for the importance of global scientific collaborations. It is a way to stand against the criminalization of routine academic activities, to object to ethnic profiling of scientists of Chinese heritage, and to vocally protest the unjust treatment of our colleague.
It is our hope that our collegial expression of outrage and support—together with institutional actions at MIT and universities nationwide—will help Professor Chen return to his research and teaching in the near future, and help defend fundamental freedoms for all.
Adapted from a piece originally published in the MIT Faculty Newsletter, submitted by 25 faculty members including Yoel Fink and Yasheng Huang. Fink is a professor of materials science and of electrical engineering and computer science. Huang is the Epoch Foundation Professor of Global Economics and Management.