MIT professor faces federal charges for allegedly failing to disclose ties to China

Federal authorities arrested a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Thursday at his home in Cambridge for allegedly failing to report his ties to the Chinese government.

Gang Chen, the Director of the MIT Pappalardo Micro/Nano Engineering Laboratory and Director of the Solid-State Solar Thermal Energy Conversion Center, faces charges of wire fraud, making false statements to a government agency, and failing to file a foreign bank account report with his 2018 taxes.

“It is not illegal to collaborate with foreign researchers. It is illegal to lie about it,” Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling told reporters.

Chen, 56, is from China and is a naturalized U.S. Citizen, according to the criminal complaint. An MIT biography describes his professional interests as including heat transfer, energy conservation and nanotechnology.

According to the complaint, his work at MIT received millions of dollars in funding from federal agencies since 2003.

“Chen’s research at MIT has been funded by more than $19 million in grants awarded by various federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency,” a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations wrote.

The complaint said Chen has held contracts with the People’s Republic of China since 2012, including acting as an “overseas expert,” working as a member of at least two Chinese talent programs and working as an expert with the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

“Since 2013, Chen allegedly received approximately $29 million of foreign funding, including $19 million from the PRC’s Southern University of Science and Technology,” US Attorney Andrew Lelling wrote in a summary of the case.

While working for Chinese entities, Chen is accused of applying for a Department of Energy grant to support his research at MIT but failing to disclose his ties to China.

“Chen never disclosed his work for NNSFC when he applied for grants from DOE or even his employer, MIT,” the special agent wrote. “He similarly failed to disclose other appointments, contracts, affiliations, and PRC sponsored activities to DOE in connection with his application for, and receipt of, at least one federal research grant. Finally, the investigation has shown that CHEN failed to disclose at least one PRC-based bank account with a balance exceeding $10,000 to the IRS, as required.”

Authorities say Chen sent himself an email in 2016 which detailed his efforts to promote Chinese scientific and economic development.

Chen’s attorney said the professor “loves the United States and looks forward to vigorously defending these allegations.”

“Since Gang moved to this country over 30 years ago, his life has been the epitome of the American dream. He has dedicated his life to scientific advancement in mechanical engineering,” attorney Rob Fisher said in an email.

Gang was ordered released from custody during a hearing held via videoconference before a Boston federal court judge.

MIT said it is “deeply distressed” by Chen’s arrest.

“MIT believes the integrity of research is a fundamental responsibility, and we take seriously concerns about improper influence in U.S. research. Prof. Chen is a long-serving and highly respected member of the research community, which makes the government’s allegations against him all the more distressing,” the school said in a statement.

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