‘I was shocked’: Controversy brews at Emory after prominent Chinese neuroscientists are ousted over disclosure issues
It’s what Chinese scientists working in the US have been dreading since MD Anderson ousted three of its Asian faculty members following NIH-directed investigations: A second prestigious institution has closed down a prominent lab and terminated the two China-born researchers heading the lab.
The news, coming out of Emory University, is once again stirring up indignation, bewilderment and anxiety among Chinese academics and netizens alike, not least because the ousted professors have gone public with their side of the story, questioning how the school handled the firing, disputing accusations and expressing their worry. As a consequence, several postdocs from China working in their lab have also been asked to leave the country.
Xiaojiang Li and Shihua Li were 23-year veterans of Emory and noted neuroscientists specializing in Huntington’s disease. The married couple, who are now US citizens, jointly ran a lab at Emory that recently created a pig model for the genetic ailment that they say represents better testing grounds for new treatments. Last April, they published this finding in Cell in collaboration with Jinan University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Guangzhou.
Xiaojiang Li was giving a speech at Jinan, where he is a part-time professor, when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on May 23 that Emory has fired two researchers for failing to disclose funding from and research ties with Chinese entities.
The notification arrived one week earlier, he told the Chinese blog Zhishifenzi, and on the same day, his lab was shut down. The graduate students and postdocs at the scene were demanded to stop their experiments, vacate the lab and attend interviews with “strangers in suits,” Zhishifenzi reported based on conversations with witnesses.
On May 24, Xiaojiang Li bat back at Emory through a statement to Science, in which he claimed to have disclosed his Chinese research activity to the university since 2012 when he began working on non-human primate research in China and cooperated with its investigation dating back to November 2018.
“I was shocked that Emory University would terminate a tenured professor in such an unusual and abrupt fashion and close our combined lab consisting of a number of graduates and postdoctoral trainees without giving me specific details for the reasons behind my termination,” he said, adding he’s requested a copy of the investigation.
As in the case with MD Anderson, Emory said it initiated its own investigations after the NIH brought suspicion of misconduct to their attention.
The probe at the prestigious Houston research hospital involved a total of five researchers, with concerns spanning violations of peer review confidentiality as well as failure to disclose foreign sources of funding and potential conflicts of interest. Authorities made the call to purge three of them, cleared another of sanctions, and are still looking into the last.
Amid a trade war with China and increased national vigilance regarding academic espionage, the NIH began warning grantee institutions about scientists with foreign ties in 2018, prompting at least 55 to launch their own probes.
“(W)e remind universities to look closely at their organizations to mitigate unscrupulous practices by foreign entities that aim to capitalize on the collaborative nature of the U.S. biomedical enterprise,” an NIH spokesperson told Endpoints News in the wake of MD Anderson’s actions, which marked the public instance of a US biomedical institution sanctioning its own researchers for alleged threats of foreign influence.
The fate of Xiaojiang Li’s six NIH-funded projects remains unknown, as does those of his postdoc researchers being forcefully repatriated (one of whom is pregnant), Xiaojiang Li said to Science. The president of Jinan has publicly pledged to host the Li’s entire team and provide them with the facilities and equipment to continue their work.
Image: Emory University. Shutterstock