The Chinese Issue At MD Anderson

By

Leonard Zwelling

Even as I post this blog and you read it, an assembly may be taking place at MD Anderson to explain to the faculty why the cancer center is the focus of news stories in the Houston Chronicle and Science Magazine about the investigation and shedding of Chinese scientists at Anderson. The headline says it all in Science:

Major U.S. cancer center ousts ‘Asian’ researchers after NIH flags their foreign ties

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/04/exclusive-major-us-cancer-center-ousts-asian-researchers-after-nih-flags-their-foreign

https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/MD-Anderson-fires-3-scientists-over-concerns-13780570.php

It’s about time this hit the press given the fact that the investigations and eventual resignations and potential expulsions have been in the works since 2017 according to the articles. I was wondering if the leadership of MD Anderson would address this issue with the faculty at some point. Baylor College of Medicine did, according to my sources, but not Anderson.

Apparently NIH is very concerned about a drainage of U.S. intellectual property, especially information contained in NIH grant applications, to China from “ethnic Chinese” at American institutions. It appears that MD Anderson was a particular focus of NIH attention and the federal agency asked the FBI for assistance in culling through emails that the cancer center cooperatively provided to federal authorities.

You can read the details in this Science article or the one on the Houston Chronicle web site, but I have a whole bunch of questions about all of this:

1. If these scientists can be dismissed, who are they? What were their academic ranks, departments, and who hired them and when? Was any vetting done of their connections to China prior to their hiring?
2. How do we know without these details that the punishment fit the crime? Did they violate federal law, institutional policy or NIH rules?
3. If these were merely violations of government policy, is the real truth here that the $148 M in NIH grants to Anderson were at risk unless these dismissals occurred? Who decided on the punishment, the NIH or MD Anderson? Or was it the FBI?
4. Was the Faculty Senate a part of these actions? If not, why not?
5. Why was the FBI probing MD Anderson emails as early as December of 2017?
6. Why were ten other Asian faculty members put on administrative leave or they decided to leave before the latest round of dismissals? What does this say about the culture of tolerance at Anderson?
7. Is there any connection between the latest set of dismissals and leavings to that which occurred a few years ago involving Jewish faculty members?
8. Has MD Anderson become a toxic work environment for certain minorities? Who’s next?

None of this is a surprise to me who saw many instances of the federal government putting pressure on Anderson (and on me personally) and having to cave to the will of the feds who hold grant dollars as ransom to get their way. It cannot be an accident that this “fear of the Asians” is cotemporal with President Trump’s war on immigrants of all kinds. NIH is part of the executive branch of government after all.

What would I have had done differently if I ran the zoo?

First, keep the government out of the emails of the faculty. If you as a leader feel you need to go that route, do so with transparency on your own. Inform those who are the subjects of your inquiry of your concerns and get them to cooperate and allow them access to attorneys if need be. That this occurred or did not is not clear from the articles in the lay press.

Second, tell the government you will handle this and get assistance from the Office of General Counsel in Austin if need be. As Dr. Pisters indicated, he needed to follow-up once he received the inquiries from the NIH. He didn’t need to use the FBI.

Really, there should be mechanisms in place at Anderson to investigate this without the help of the federal government. And there are if this rises to the level of conflict of interest or research misconduct. That used to be my job and I did it, with some frequency but only with the full knowledge of those accused and only with the insight and counsel of faculty peers of those accused.

Third, the FBI on MD Anderson campus? Give me a break! Does anyone really think national security was at risk here? If so, let’s hear about how a faculty member at Anderson threatened that security. Oh, that’s right, if you told me that, you’d have to kill me.

Fourth, if, as seems obvious, faculty of Chinese extraction were being targeted by the NIH, get all of them in a room and tell them that they are under scrutiny, but not by the institution, but there are external pressures that warrant their being very careful.

Dr. Pisters is big on transparency, but I see none so far. Perhaps the assembly on Monday will clarify some of these issues, but it shouldn’t have taken that long to pro-actively ready the faculty for what was coming from the feds and coming for months.

I am sorry. This has all the earmarks of the past purge at Anderson under the last president which never did get explained, but may well have been linked to the unexpected stepping down of DePinho’s predecessor and the exit of many Jewish faculty and leaders following the $150 M gift from the UAE.

Right now MD Anderson has a bigger problem than whether or not a few scientists of Asian extraction sent emails to China. It has a credibility problem with regard to who’s in control of the institution, the leadership, the NIH or the FBI. It sure isn’t the faculty.

And by the way, if these folks are getting dismissed, why did the last president get rewarded with a golden parachute for committing self-dealing on national television, conflict of interest and nepotism. In fact, he’s still strutting around the MD Anderson campus untouched by justice.

Who the heck is in charge at Anderson? Or is anyone?

Or worse, is all of this just pretext to allow those in charge to do as they wish, unopposed by a faculty that has been neutered?

It is time for the Faculty Senate to exert a leadership role and get the truth out, clean the air at Anderson and start over. The next cleansing may need to start with a Pickens shampoo.

Leonard Zwelling