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Anjani Trivedi

American Scientists Are Not a Threat to the U.S.

The FBI has accused an MIT professor of working for China. His colleagues say all universities now look for grants beyond the federal government which has cut funding.

The MIT campus.

The MIT campus.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

On Jan. 14, while announcing the arrest of a prominent Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s special agent in Boston said, “The real victims in these cases are you – the taxpayers.” He added that Gang Chen, a high-profile mechanical engineering professor and naturalized American citizen, had failed to disclose that he was, in effect, an agent of the Chinese government while “applying for scarce federal grants” and thus “knowingly and willingly defrauded at least $19 million in federal grants by exploiting our systems to enhance” China’s research in nanotechnology.

Chen faces criminal charges of wire fraud, failing to file a foreign bank account report and making a false statement in a tax return. He has not been accused of theft of trade secrets or espionage. The scientist has pleaded not guilty.

The academic community is up in arms over Chen’s arrest: over 170 professors have signed an open letter to MIT’s president in the scientist’s support. The complaint, said the letter, “has nothing to do with protecting intellectual property” and “represents a deep misunderstanding of how research is conducted or funded at a place like MIT.” The Institute put out a separate letter on Chen’s and its own relationship with a Chinese university that the FBI had questioned. Under an agreement, the Chinese institution would provide MIT with $25 million over five years for research, building renovation and other operational expenses. The U.S. school noted that the contribution wasn’t an individual one to Chen.