Scientists Depart MD Anderson and Emory Over Undisclosed Ties to China

Two recent incidents illustrate the growing concern in the U.S. research community that China and other foreign governments have been using visiting scholars to access confidential intellectual property.

In April, officials at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston dismissed three of five researchers federal authorities alleged were involved the theft of American research for China. The scientists, all of whom are ethnically Chinese, were accused by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) of violating federal granting agency rules by failing to keep peer review confidential and failing to disclose foreign ties. Two of the accused researchers resigned before termination proceedings began and the third is challenging the dismissal.

Then, in May, two faculty members left Emory University after allegedly failing to disclose foreign sources of research funding and their work with institutions and universities in China. Both researchers – known for their studies of Huntington disease in mouse and pig models – are ethnically Chinese but are U.S. citizens who have worked at Emory for 23 years. The university closed the scientists’ joint laboratory and asked four Chinese postdoctoral students working in the lab to leave the U.S. within 30 days. The dismissed scientists have criticized the university’s actions, noting that they were never given specific reasons for their termination.

Representatives from Emory said that this action came after an internal investigation prompted by a letter from the NIH, which has been contacting U.S. universities with concerns about grantees violating agency rules regarding the disclosure of foreign funding and affiliations. The agency reported earlier this year that it had identified at least 190 NIH grantees with potentially problematic foreign relationships. Emory is one of at least 55 institutions that launched investigations as a result of the NIH inquiries.

Many in the Chinese-American science community, and beyond, see the recent incidents as acts of racial profiling that hinder important research and endanger academic freedom.

MD Anderson President Peter Pisters, MD, told the Houston Chronicle that “as stewards of taxpayer dollars invested in biomedical research,” the institution had a responsibility to follow up on the investigation. He denied racial profiling accusations and called this incident “part of a much larger issue the country is facing – trying to balance an open collaborative environment and at the same time protect proprietary information and commercial interests.”

Sources: AP News, April 20, 2019; Houston Chronicle, April 29, 2019; Science, May 24, 2019.