Witch-hunts cripple science, warns scholar arrested under Trump

A year after his ordeal, Chinese American semiconductor specialist Gang Chen reflects on how a 12-month government investigation changed his life and work

March 14, 2023
Gang Chen in his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge as described in the article
Source: Tony Luong/ New York Times/ Redux/ Eyevine

A leading scientist arrested under the Trump administration’s “China initiative” – a controversial campaign designed to stop research theft by the communist superpower – has warned that government interference has created an atmosphere of fear for foreign-born academics in the US.

Gang Chen, a naturalised US citizen and global semiconductor specialist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said he feared that Washington’s approach of targeting researchers could give world-leading specialists reason to take their talent elsewhere.

Speaking with Times Higher Education a year after charges against him were dropped, Professor Chen cautioned that the authorities must think very carefully before they take actions that “basically kill the career of a researcher”.

“We have seen lots of cases where the funding agencies are using new rules to investigate previous activities when collaboration with China was encouraged,” he said. “This is simply wrong and creates fear among academic communities.

“You do not first come into a university and…suspend someone’s research after five years. If there’s a violation…you need to give people a clear chance to clarify and correct errors.”

Professor Chen was arrested without warning in January 2021. In the course of days he went from being one of the world’s most respected semiconductor specialists to a persona non grata, under investigation by the US government for allegedly failing to disclose Chinese affiliations in grant proposals to US funding agencies.

He would spend much of the following year shut off from the world. The court order prevented him from talking with anyone who might be a witness to any potential crimes – it was only months later that he got permission to talk to a few specific members of his research group.

“Any talk would go through lawyers. They would send a [scientific] paper through lawyers, I’d send one back, also through lawyers.”

In January 2022, all charges against him were dropped, with prosecutors saying the evidence could no longer “meet our burden of proof at trial”. But the damage had already been done.

“The fear I have is still there. This is the fear, for example when I go through the border, I was worried: will I be stopped? Will my cell phone be taken away?…my wife, sometimes I hear her crying in her dreams. So the fear…it’s a slow process.”

Once keen to correspond with scientists abroad, Professor Chen has become reserved – especially when he gets enquiries from overseas.

“I do not dare to reply to emails when scientific questions come from people reading my papers, especially when I get emails from students in China. I hesitate to collaborate, especially with other countries,” he said.

He has also renounced any future government funding, something he acknowledged “significantly limits” his resources for doing research, making work on semiconductors next to impossible.  

Out of necessity, Professor Chen has changed his research topic, moving out of more politically sensitive semiconductors and into studying materials that more effectively convert solar energy.

“In some ways, it’s trying to make lemonade out of lemons,” he said, acknowledging the rarity of a big change in direction at this stage in a career. He has also begun advocating for science to remain above geopolitics and fielding messages from other researchers worried they could become targets.

Recently, Professor Chen helped raise funds for the legal defence of University of Kansas scholar Franklin Feng Tao, who was acquitted of most of the counts against him for undisclosed ties to a university in China.

“The problem is, any conviction will mark you as a criminal…His family owes over a million dollars in legal bills…it’s painful to see what they experienced, to hear from Franklin’s wife, who is working three jobs to pay the fees…but it’s also very painful because in many cases I can’t do anything.”

In comparison, Professor Chen knew he had dodged a bullet.

“I keep telling people I’m the luckiest among unlucky people,” he said, praising the “very strong” support of his institution and colleagues. He was also touched by the outpouring of messages from scientists around the country.

“Many people supported me. When I asked why, they said: ‘This could happen to me.’ They said: ‘I’m so scared filling out funding forms.’”

If anything, the ordeal strengthened his conviction to remain at MIT – and in the US. Professor Chen said that in the months following his arrest, offers came in from top universities around the world, but he refused them.

“MIT is a special place,” he said. The US, after all, is home. “I’m an American. I came here for the American dream, even though it turned into a nightmare.”

As determined as he is to move on, Professor Chen recognised that his career would forever be marked by the experience. He has managed to recruit five new members to his lab, but it is still far smaller than the 15-member operation he was supervising before his arrest.

“I don’t expect myself to go back to what I was before, but I’m also determined,” he said. “I’m not going to be beaten in my science. I’m going to become stronger through this ordeal.”

His wish for the future is a modest one: “I hope basic science can remain open.”



Print headline: Cleared scholar still wary of ‘witch-hunt’

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Reader's comments (1)

Sinophobia is the biggest racism issue of our time, but is authorised by mainsteam media and Western Govts.