U.S. accepts plea by Arkansas scientist charged in controversial China Initiative | Science

A former University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, engineering professor today pleaded guilty to one count of lying to FBI about his status as an inventor. In return, the U.S. government agreed to drop its efforts to prosecute him for allegedly hiding his ties to China on federal grant applications.

Simon Ang is one of two dozen academic scientists who have been prosecuted under the government’s 3-year-old China Initiative, an effort critics say has unfairly targeted scientists of Chinese descent by trying to enforce ambiguous rules about what scientists need to disclose about their research activities when they seek federal funding. Yesterday the U.S. government dropped all charges against Gang Chen, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“I think the U.S. government is beginning to understand that the China Initiative is a misguided strategy that has strayed far from its original goals,” Ang’s lawyer, Drew Ledbetter, told ScienceInsider after the plea agreement was announced this morning in a federal court in Arkansas. “Scaring researchers is counterproductive and ultimately will only suppress collaborative research at academic institutions.”

Ang was arrested in May 2020 and his trial was scheduled to begin next month. The Departmentof Justice did not comment on why it agreed to dismiss most of the charges, nor did Ledbetter speculate.

The agreement asks the judge to impose a prison sentence of 366 days on the sole count of denying Ang was listed as a co-inventor on several Chinese patents when an FBI agent interviewed him after his arrest. Ledbetter says it will likely be several months before the judge imposes a sentence, and that the duration was chosen because anyone sentenced to more than 1 year “may obtain early release for good behavior.”

FBI says it was looking into Ang’s patent history, as well as his interactions with U.S. research agencies, to determine whether he had violated the university’s rules involving conflict of interest and outside employment. Ledbetter says Ang was serving as a chief technical adviser to his brother’s light-emitting diode lighting company in Singapore and that the university was aware of his activities. The patents had no monetary value, according to Ledbetter.

The 64-year-old Ang was fired by the university 2 months after his arrest, and Ledbetter says he has no plans to resume his research career.