U.S. Moves to Drop Case Against M.I.T. Scientist Accused of Hiding China Links

The charges against Gang Chen, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, were dropped on Thursday by federal prosecutors.

Dr. Chen was charged with a form of grant fraud, hiding his affiliations with Chinese government institutions in applications for $2.7 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy. He denied all the charges.

The government learned new information in the course of its investigation and can't meet its burden of proof at trial, according to prosecutors. The judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts is expected to rule soon on the motion.

Boston is a hub of scientific research and the arrest of Dr. Chen was front-page news. It was met with protest from many of Dr. Chen's colleagues in academia, who said that prosecutors had overreached in their dealings with Dr. Chen, blurring the line between grant disclosure violations and more serious crimes like espionage or intellectual property theft.

According to people familiar with the matter, the Department of Energy would have awarded the grant money to Dr. Chen even if he had disclosed his Chinese ties.

Robert Fisher said that today was a great day. The government finally acknowledged that Professor Gang Chen is an innocent man. Our defense was never based on legal issues. Gang did not commit any of the offenses he was charged with. Full stop.

Mr. Fisher credited witnesses who came forward and told the government how badly they misunderstood the details of scientific and academic collaboration.

The decision to withdraw the case was made after prosecutors obtained additional information pertaining to the materiality of Professor Chen's alleged omissions in the grant review, according to a statement from the new U.S. attorney in Boston.

Ms. Rollins said that the charging decisions deeply impact people's lives. I will always encourage the prosecutors in our office to engage in this type of rigorous and continued review at every stage of a proceeding. The process that led to the dismissal is in the interests of justice.

The China Initiative, an effort launched under the Trump administration which has come under criticism for singling out scientists of Chinese heritage and for chilling the atmosphere for collaborative research, is being reviewed by the Justice Department.

Wyn Hornbuckle, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, said last week that the department was reviewing its approach to counter threats posed by the P.R.C. government.

He said that they would provide additional information in the coming weeks.

The initiative has resulted in a number of grant fraud cases against academic researchers, including last month's conviction of the Harvard chemist Charles Leiber.

The case against Anming Hu, a professor of engineering at the University of Tennessee, ended in acquittal after a judge ruled that the government had not presented enough evidence. The cases against researchers have been dismissed by the Justice Department.

The case against Dr. Chen, a naturalized U.S. citizen since 2000, is the most prominent one to be dismissed to date, targeting an elite scientist who had robust support from his university.

Andrew E. Lelling, the federal prosecutor in Boston, said at the news conference the morning of Dr. Chen's arrest that the allegations of the complaint imply that this was not just about greed, but about loyalty to China. Joseph R. Bonavolanta, the F.B.I. special agent in charge in Boston, said that Dr. Chen cheated at least $19 million in federal grants.

The charges were more limited when they were filed five days later.

Dr. Chen was charged with two counts of wire fraud for failing to disclose seven affiliations to the Department of Energy while applying for a $2.7 million grant to study heat conduction in polymer structures. The affiliations included serving as a fourth overseas expert consultant to the Chinese government, a review expert for the National Natural Science Foundation of China, and an adviser to the Chinese Scholarship Council.

He was accused of failing to declare a Chinese bank account and making false statements to government officials in his grant disclosures.

According to two people familiar with the matter, the Department of Energy told prosecutors that the affiliations Dr. Chen failed to declare wouldn't have stopped them from extending the grant money.

A few former officials who requested anonymity to speak about an ongoing case said the case was rushed in the days after the January 6 riot. The National Security Division had 48 hours to review the indictment before Dr. Chen was arrested.

Mr. Fisher said that the scientist had not lied to the government.

Mr. Fisher said that he was never in a talent program. He was not an overseas scientist for Beijing. He never lied to the government or anyone else.

The China Initiative's sharpest critics, Asian American rights groups and universities, met with Biden officials to discuss possible changes to the program.

According to current and former Justice Department officials, the name of the China Initiative may be dropped in the coming weeks, and the cases may be grouped into the National Security Division. The officials said that officials are leaning toward resolving the pending grant fraud cases individually after initial discussion of offering amnesty.

Mr. Lelling is a private practice lawyer in Boston.

The China Initiative had been intended to combat espionage but had lost its focus, he wrote in a post last month.

He said in an interview that he didn't want people to be scared of collaboration. The China Initiative has created a climate of fear among researchers. That is one reason why D.O.J. should slow down a bit.

He said that the prosecutions of academics had led to more transparency about their Chinese funding.

He said that general deterrence has been achieved in spades, and that he has terrified the entire research community. What is deterrence? You don't speed because you're afraid of getting a ticket Deterrence is about fear.

The prosecution had a profound effect on Dr. Chen, who was the director of M.I.T.'s Department of Mechanical Engineering, a position that required him to raise money overseas for a range of university research projects.

A group of M.I.T. faculty members wrote a letter last year saying that questioning his loyalty reminded them of dark periods in history. Many M.I.T. faculty and students of Chinese heritage feel targeted, fearful, and intimidated.

Three days after Dr. Chen was arrested by his daughter, $400,000 was raised on a GoFundMe page. She wrote on the page that unused funds would be donated to charity.

She wrote that her dad was going to fight the charges because of the danger they posed to the broader academic community and all Chinese Americans.

The dismissal of the charges against Dr. Chen raises questions about the use of weapons by law enforcement, said Yoel Fink, an M.I.T. professor who helped organize the letter-writing campaign.

He said that these are very potent weapons. If those weapons are turned on you, you will be destroyed. What questions can we ask? What type of accountability can we expect when innocent people are hurt by these weapons?