‘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 Emory

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.

Shi­hua Li Emory

“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

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