Federal Probe Into China Ties at U.S. Institutions May Affect Blameless Researchers

As part of an ongoing investigation into foreign influence on U.S.-funded medical research by federal officials, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has sent letters to more than 60 institutions inquiring about the conduct of almost 200 researchers receiving agency funding. These letters, mostly concerning interactions with Chinese laboratories, have led to scientists being let go from institutions across the U.S., including MD Anderson Cancer Center, for allegedly violating NIH reporting rules.

Some researchers – including Pearlie Epling-Burnette, PharmD, PhD, who was asked to leave Moffitt Cancer Center along with two of her colleagues for collaborating with institutions in China – say they are being blamed for things that never happened. Dr. Epling-Burnette is disputing Moffitt’s decision, maintaining that her dealings with China fell within a partnership between the cancer center and Tianjin Medical University Cancer Institute and Hospital (TMUCIH) that did not violate federal or institutional policies.

None of the fired Moffitt employees were accused of stealing intellectual property or transferring it to Chinese colleagues. Dr. Epling-Burnette herself was not accused of violating NIH reporting rules, but she is concerned about the reputations of four Chinese postdocs who worked in her lab as part of the partnership with TMUCIH, as well as the other 10 people working in her lab whose lives will be affected by her abrupt departure.

“These institutions live in absolute fear of NIH and worry that, if they don’t go overboard in taking action, NIH might cut them off,” she says. “But good people are being crushed in the process.”

Source: Science, March 11, 2020.