Months after an MIT professor was cleared of spying for China, he helped make a major scientific discovery. But he says the success has been bittersweet.
Gang Chen, who had espionage charges against him dismissed in January, was part of a research effort that last month discovered what could be the “best semiconductor material ever found,” the school announced. But Chen told NBC Asian America that after undergoing a lengthy Department of Justice investigation, he is stepping away from federally funded research, despite the discovery, because of anxieties around being racially profiled.
“I hope it will draw the attention of the scientific community. I hope it will draw more attention of the government to fund more research in the area. But for me, I’m stopping that research,” Chen, a Chinese immigrant, said. “Basically, I’m done with federal funding.”
Chen was among a team of researchers from MIT, the University of Houston and other institutions who were able to determine that the material cubic boron arsenide successfully conducts electricity and heat, making it an effective semiconductor. The discovery could have far-reaching effects, as silicon is currently among the most widely used semiconductors, making up the foundation of modern technology from computer chips to smartphones. And cubic boron arsenide could be a “promising candidate for next-generation electronics,” MIT said.
The research, Chen emphasized, is still in its early stages and the material likely years away from commercial use. But the findings have “great potential,” he said, adding that his team first made predictions about the material in 2018, and that they’re “very happy our prediction was correct.”
These days, however, his work also comes with a steady level of anxiety and fear, because of the accusations that were lodged against him.
“After my case was dropped, a lot of people said, ‘Now you should return to normal.’ But it’s not going to be normal. I have to find my new equilibrium,” Chen said. “I love science but I’m still living in fear. And many people like me are still living in fear. It’s really unfortunate. The wrongful prosecutions have created terror in people like me.”
Not only does Chen want to distance himself from federally funded work, but certain tasks like opening emails from international scholars, he says, has become nerve-wracking. The damage has been done.
More than a year ago, the government alleged that Chen had concealed affiliations with several Chinese entities in an Energy Department grant application and encouraged students to apply for positions in China, among several other accusations. But 170 MIT faculty members signed a letter alleging that much of the activity that had been interpreted as espionage, like evaluation of research proposals, for example, were “standard practices” and “some of the most routine and even innocuous elements of our professional lives.” His CV, shared on the MIT website, contains dozens of references to China, and his publications cite international funding, the faculty wrote, “specifically from the very sources claimed in the complaint to be ‘hidden.’”
In January 2021, federal agents stormed Chen’s house, arresting him in front of his family. The year that followed, Chen recalls, was difficult. While the university stood by him, providing legal counsel, he said his professional reputation is still “damaged.” He was put on paid leave and many of his students and postdocs had to reorient their career paths.
“The worst is that the U.S., as a beacon to the world in attracting talents, that has diminished,” Chen said.
But perhaps most difficult for him was that his wife and children suffered, he said. It’s still a sensitive subject for Chen to discuss.
“I am so lucky I have a supportive family,” he said. “I can only say that it’s not a pain that can go away.”
While Chen was under investigation, he took up an interest in standup comedy, a hobby that the university encouraged during the pandemic as a way for its students and faculty to relax. For him, it was sort of a coping mechanism. Chen said he couldn’t talk to anybody at the time, so he and his wife would take turns, coming up with lines to roast the situation while they were out on walks.
“We often said how stupid this is and tried to come up with some laughable sentences,” he said. “There is a lot of stupidity in all this.”
The case collapsed in January, when prosecutors found that Chen had not been required to disclose the ties with Chinese entities, and that the case no longer met the “burden of proof at trial.”
“As prosecutors, we have an obligation in every matter we pursue to continually examine the facts while being open to receiving and uncovering new information,” U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins said in a statement. “We understand that our charging decisions deeply impact people’s lives.”
The Justice Department did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment on the accusations against Chen and the subsequent dismissal of charges.
MIT President L. Rafael Reif, in a statement on Chen’s ordeal in January, said that it is “difficult to reconcile and accept the pain and anguish” that the professor and his family had endured.
“This case has also caused ongoing distress throughout our community, particularly for Gang’s friends, students and colleagues, and for those across MIT and elsewhere who are of Chinese descent,” Reif wrote. “Having had faith in Gang from the beginning, we can all be grateful that a just outcome of a damaging process is on the horizon. We are eager for his full return to our community.”
Chen’s case is part of the contentious “China Initiative,” a Trump-era security program aimed at addressing Chinese economic espionage. However, with several scientists’ lives thrown into disarray after being falsely accused, many have alleged that the initiative has encouraged racial profiling. Earlier this year, the Biden administration sunsetted the policy.
And the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy also announced changes in the grant process, making it more uniform and less prone to error due to unclear rules and instructions. The failure to report specific work history, for example, had been interpreted by officials as attempts to conceal affiliations with China.
The tense research environment in recent years isn’t something that Chen said he had felt in the early days of his work. More than 50% of scientists of Chinese descent in the U.S. now “feel considerable fear and/or anxiety” that they are under government surveillance, research by the Committee of 100, published in October, shows. When Chen immigrated to the U.S. more than three decades ago, he said he wasn’t sure if he was going to stay long term. But after securing his Ph.D., and working with other scholars, Chen said he was sure.
“I said, ‘What a wonderful academic environment that we have here,’” he remembers. “And I decided to stay and actually I’d say I’m very grateful that I got all the opportunities that occurred. It saddens me. It saddens so many of us to say that this has changed so much.”
He added: “We are so proud of a country that builds on immigrants, attracts talents, and we need to continue to do so to stay strong as a powerful country.”
For now, Chen said, he’ll continue his work his own way and try to heal with time. One day, he said, he might find humor in the incident. And perhaps then, he’ll try his hand at a public standup performance, he said, laughing.