Two Chinese Scientists At Emory Dismissed


Leonard Zwelling

It is no longer MD Anderson alone that has terminated the employment of faculty members with connections to China.

In this May 24 article on Science Magazine’s web site, it is reported by Jon Cohen that Li Xiao-Jiang and his wife and laboratory co-director Li Shihua were dismissed after 23 years of employment at Emory. They are well known investigators in the field of Huntington’s disease having modeled the disease in mice and pigs. They are U.S. citizens. Along with the two lead investigators’ firing, four of their post-docs from China must leave the United States in the next 30 days.

The couple is disputing the allegation that they did not disclose their funding from or research activities in China. Science specifically cites papers they have published as having “disclosed funding and affiliations with Chinese institutions.”

This gives me a great deal of pause for a host of reasons.

First, this means that MD Anderson is no longer the only institution to have responded to the queries from the NIH by firing faculty members.

Second, these are American citizens who were dismissed.

Third, the article seems to say that the couple had disclosed their affiliations with China, but obviously they either did so inadequately or they have been singled out. That distinction is crucial to being able to interpret the meaning of this latest action by a top-tier research institution against its own faculty members.

Finally, this also means that it is likely that cases such as the ones at Anderson and this one at Emory may also be occurring at other institutions among the 55 that received inquiry letters from the NIH. In this case too, as was the case at MD Anderson, emails were gone through to make the case against the couple.

The obvious questions are what is precipitating this action on the part of the federal government and who’s next?

Given the other maneuvers by the Trump Administration against the People’s Republic of China in the way of tariffs, it is reasonable to assume that the NIH’s actions are of a piece with the greater actions of the executive branch of the federal government. In other words, we may expect more of this, but it must be considered that this threat is real and that there really have been bad actors among those accused.

Is this analogous to the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War? It might be, but then again, it may be fully justified. This sort of thing does not have a great history in this country, but the fact that people have inherent conflicts of interest in academic medicine is no longer a reportable story either.

It is time for great care and sure-footedness with regard to any action taken against Chinese working at academic institutions, especially those who are naturalized citizens. It is also time for transparency about the cases that are brought so that those following the rules, including those in the ethnic group in question, do not have to fear for their careers.

As to who is next, I am worried on two levels. What other institutions will bend to the pressure being placed on them by the NIH and or the FBI to find supposed wrong doers amongst the faculty (e.g., by allowing access to institutional email) and which group will be next after the Chinese?

I am very worried about this—now more than ever. What I thought may have been an over-vigorous response from some inexperienced leadership at Anderson to what was perceived as a threat to its major source of research funding must now be taken far more seriously as a federal action against American citizens. It may turn out that the actions at Anderson and at Emory were appropriate and that those dismissed were given full due process. Until who was involved, specifically what they did, and precisely why the punishment fit the crime is publicly known, there will be a cloud hanging over the institutions that have taken such actions and the remaining faculty from that ethnic group against whom the action was taken at Anderson, at Emory–everywhere.

Leonard Zwelling