In defense of Gang Chen — in defense of academic freedom

C. Dames
6 min readFeb 11, 2021


On January 14 our mentor, colleague, and friend, Prof. Gang Chen of MIT was arrested and charged with misleading the federal government on a grant application. He was portrayed as cold, scheming, and having somehow exploited the American federal grant system by accepting $19 million in research funds from a Chinese university.

But as the MIT administration soon explained, these funds very publicly went to MIT and not Gang personally. Many members of MIT’s faculty also wrote a letter outlining several other flaws in the criminal complaint. Here we highlight one more serious flaw with the charges, frame these events in the larger context of academic freedom, and share with you the human side of Gang.

We are a group of over 70 lab alumni and close colleagues of Gang. Having collectively written and reviewed thousands of federal grant proposals, it is plain to us that this criminal complaint gravely misunderstands grant writing and other commonplace, benign practices in academia.

The indictment focuses intensely on a “biographical sketch,” submitted as one of six required appendices to Prof. Chen’s 2017 grant application. A key allegation is that he deliberately misled the government by failing to list all of his professional and academic associations with China as well as all of his research co-authors from the last four years. The biosketch also requires information about publications and education and training: in short, the same territory as a CV, or academic resume.

But what the indictment fails to mention is that the grant paperwork limits this biosketch appendix to two pages, while Prof. Chen’s CV, which is publicly available, is 123 pages.

In fact, we don’t believe the purpose of this two-page biosketch was ever to list everything, because that would be impossible. Rather, it is widely understood among academics that this biosketch is just for a few highlights, selected mainly to impress the other professors who review the proposal.

This begs an obvious question which is now terrifying researchers across the country: if our academic CV might be 100 pages long, how shall we now decide what to highlight in these two pages? If representatives of the Department of Justice are not satisfied with our choices, shall we too face arrest?

The public also deserves to know about Gang’s warmth and humanity. Gang has been a US citizen for more than 20 years and lived here for more than 30. He and his family have built a vibrant life in the best tradition of the American immigrant dream. Their two children were born and raised here, and Gang delights in sharing stories about backpacking with his son in New Hampshire and videos of his daughter’s rhythmic gymnastics on ESPN.

For the dozens of us who came to graduate school from overseas, Gang and his family became our family too. They were our first introduction to that most American of holidays, Thanksgiving, which they have hosted without fail for over 25 years. Their entire extended academic family, both domestic and international students, was always welcome. Even with the pandemic in 2020, Gang and his family still found a way to honor the holiday, delivering their homecooked Thanksgiving meals by driving around the student apartments of Boston and Cambridge.

Many of us started our own families while we were PhD students working with Gang. We fondly remember his warmth and kindness, from encouraging one of us to stay home while she was pregnant with complications, to celebrating at the baptism of another student’s firstborn. Gang always made time to support us, giving one of us nine months leave to recover from a mental illness and visiting another to provide comfort after a cancer diagnosis.

Gang is also universally known for his spirited pursuit of the truth, with the strictest of standards tempered by his booming laugh. He is a jovial pot-stirrer who delights in shaking up the conventional wisdom in search of deeper truths. He is a brilliant scientist and engineer who uses his talents to create low-cost solutions for the energy and water needs of underdeveloped parts of the world.

To be clear, not all global engagements are in America’s best interest. For highly sensitive technologies such as missile guidance systems there is a 44-year old mechanism to restrict research access. But in most fields of academia, including ours, such restricted research is exceedingly rare, which most professors don’t touch even once in their entire careers.

This is because we all — including Gang Chen — focus on fundamental research, whether basic or applied. Even in the midst of the Cold War, President Reagan issued a National Security directive recognizing that an open research culture is vital for the creativity that drives our nation’s leadership in science and technology, and declaring that the products of fundamental research should therefore be as free as possible. This policy was reaffirmed in 2001 and 2010 and still stands today. Prof. Chen’s grant in question is about as fundamental as it gets, an esoteric study of how atoms vibrate and carry heat in plastics. There is simply no concern about national security or economic espionage.

Stepping back, this story is much bigger than the Justice Department’s tragic misunderstanding of the finer points of grant paperwork, and even the potential career destruction of a stellar researcher and wonderful human being. The larger issue is the tension between academic freedom and national and economic security.

Thus we echo the calls to use this intense moment constructively, by igniting a national conversation among academics, policymakers, and security professionals to develop clear frameworks that work for all sides. This conversation has already begun in the recent report on Fundamental Science and Security by the JASON group, high-level academics who advise the US government and security community. We wholeheartedly support its recommendations, especially to reaffirm the bright line between fundamental and classified research. Realizing such a vision would be a suitable way to honor the life’s work and contributions of our friend, mentor, and American scholar, Prof. Gang Chen.

~~ ~

Chris Dames is a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at UC Berkeley

Signed: 75+ group alumni and concerned colleagues of Gang Chen

Feb. 11, 2021

The signatories are representing their personal views, not those of their institutions.

A. Bajpayee

D. Borca-Tasciuc (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)

T. Borca-Tasciuc (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)

M. Branham (Founder, Stealth startup)

B. Burg

Y. Chalopin (University of Paris — Saclay)

S. Chen (University of Houston)

M. Chiesa (University of Tromsø)

T. Cooper (York University)

C. Dames (University of California, Berkeley)

O. Delaire (Duke University)

C. Duan (Boston University)

K. Esfarjani (University of Virginia)

S. Fan (Stanford University)

N. Fang (MIT)

S. Feng (The University of Hong Kong)

J. Garg (University of Oklahoma)

S. Graham (Georgia Institute of Technology)

J. Greffet (Université Paris-Saclay)

C. Grigoropoulos (University of California, Berkeley)

A. Guzman (Faculty Universidad Diego Portales, Chile)

S. Han (University of New Mexico)

Q. Hao (University of Arizona)

T. Harris (Sandia National Labs)

F. Hashemi

C. Hin

P. Hopkins (University of Virginia)

E. Hsu

Y. Hu (University of California, Los Angeles)

Y. Huang

J. Hutchinson (Harvard University)

K. Ihara (NEC Corporation)

X. Jia (Virginia Tech)

R. Karnik (MIT)

D. Kraemer (Modern Electron)

H. Lee (Santa Clara University)

S. Lee (University of Pittsburgh)

J. Li (MIT)

M. Li (MIT)

B. Liao (University of California, Santa Barbara)

J. Loomis

B. Lorenzi (University of Milano Bicocca)

M. Luckyanova

T. Luo (University of Notre Dame)

H. Ma (University of Missouri)

S. Maruyama (University of Tokyo)

A. Mavrokefalos

K. McEnaney

J. Mendoza (Facebook)

N. Miljkovic (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

A. Minnich (California Institute of Technology)

B. Muralidharan

A. Muto (Novus Energy Technologies)

A. Narayanaswamy (Columbia University)

G. Ni

B. Qiu (Facebook)

P. Reddy

P. Sambegoro (Bandung Institute of Technology, Indonesia)

A. Schmidt (MIT)

S. Shen (Carnegie Mellon University)

L. Shi (The University of Texas at Austin)

J. Shiomi (University of Tokyo)

D. Singh (University of Missouri)

J. Snyder (Northwestern University)

Z. Suo (Harvard University)

N. Thoppey (Essity GmbH)

Z. Tian (Cornell University)

S. Volz (University of Tokyo)

J. Wang

X. Wang (Iowa State University)

L. Weinstein

Y. Xu (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

B. Yang (University of Maryland)

Y. Yang (Columbia University)

S. Yee (Georgia Institute of Technology)

S. Yerci (Middle East Technical University)

M. Zebarjadi (University of Virginia)

L. Zeng (Point72 Asset Management)

X. Zhao (MIT)

J. Zhou (Stanford University)

Y. Zhu (University of California, Santa Barbara)

[Updated Feb. 12, 13, and 19, with some additional signatures.]