In DepthForeign Influence

Concerns about ties to China prompt firings

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Science  26 Apr 2019:
Vol. 364, Issue 6438, pp. 314-315
DOI: 10.1126/science.364.6438.314

The MD Anderson Cancer Center is one of at least 55 U.S. institutions investigating potential violations of federal rules.

PHOTO: HOUSTON CHRONICLE

The MD Anderson Cancer Center here has moved to oust three senior researchers after the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, informed it that the scientists had committed potentially “serious” violations of agency rules about keeping peer review confidential or disclosing foreign ties. The researchers are among five MD Anderson scientists NIH had named in letters to cancer center officials; the cancer center last week disclosed that it began termination proceedings after doing its own investigations.

MD Anderson's actions are the first publicly known dismissals of researchers in response to a sweeping effort that NIH launched last year to address U.S. government fears that foreign nations, particularly China, are taking inappropriate advantage of federally funded biomedical research. MD Anderson has not identified any of the five researchers named by NIH, but all are “Asian,” according to President Peter Pisters. Science has confirmed that three are ethnically Chinese. Among cancer center faculty and Asian American activists, the events are fueling concerns that government agencies and MD Anderson are unfairly targeting scientists of Chinese descent.

The five affected researchers would not comment by name. But some say they are considering suing MD Anderson. “I did not steal information,” one tells Science. “I intend to protect my rights in court.”

Officials at both NIH and MD Anderson deny they have engaged in racial profiling. NIH says that, over the past 8 months, it has asked dozens of U.S. institutions to investigate possible rule violations by specific grantees, including “non-Chinese scientists,” as part of its examination of improper foreign influence. It says at least 55 campuses have launched investigations but declined to provide further details.

MD Anderson's moves appear to be at least in part a response to the NIH letters, although administrators there had suspended at least one of the researchers before it began to receive the letters last summer. “We want to be No. 1 in NIH funding … so we will respond and be responsive to the NIH,” Steven Hahn, MD Anderson's chief medical executive, told cancer center employees this week at a meeting held to address faculty concerns about the investigations. (Science obtained an audio recording of the session.) MD Anderson received about $148 million in NIH grants in 2018.

NIH began to write to MD Anderson about possible violations by its faculty in August 2018, according to NIH emails and internal cancer center documents provided by MD Anderson to the Houston Chronicle and reviewed by Science. Those documents also show that MD Anderson, which is a part of the University of Texas (UT) system, had been cooperating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on “national security” and other investigations of faculty long before NIH began to send its letters.

In late 2017, the cancer center agreed to an FBI request for material from 23 employee email accounts. FBI agents also interviewed faculty members. According to one researcher who spoke with FBI, agents sought lists of scientists who had accepted grants under China's Thousand Talents Program, which offers funding, salary, and other research support to ethnically Chinese scientists working outside of China. (Supervisory special agent Don Lichay, of FBI's field office here, would not comment on specific investigations. “We're just going to go where the evidence is,” he says.)

Those probes might have informed the five letters that NIH sent to MD Anderson. Several contain specific allegations: that the researchers violated the confidentiality of NIH's peer-review system or failed to disclose funding or business links to institutions in China. Although NIH does not state how it learned of the potential violations, agency Director Francis Collins told reporters after a Senate hearing on 11 April that FBI has “been a major part of providing us with information that they've uncovered.”

The first of the five letters that MD Anderson received from NIH arrived on 24 August 2018, just days after Collins sent a memo to more than 10,000 institutions warning them of “systematic” efforts by foreign nations to benefit from NIH-funded research (Science, 8 March, p. 1020). Collins's memo noted that some institutions might receive follow-up requests to investigate specific issues.

One letter to MD Anderson, for example, asserted that a researcher violated peer-review confidentiality by emailing to a scientist in China a grant application marked as containing “proprietary/privileged information.” A different letter alleged that a researcher shared “detailed information on as many as 8 NIH applications” with a daughter. Three of the letters stated that researchers might have been involved with China's Thousand Talents Program.

MD Anderson's compliance and ethics officer, Max Weber, responded with lengthy reports to Pisters, which were provided to the Houston Chronicle in redacted form and reviewed by Science. Several of the reports focused on contact with people and institutions in China, quoting extensively from emails and other documents. In one case, Weber described what he called a “quid pro quo,” alleging that an MD Anderson scientist set up a collaboration in China so that the scientist could get a Thousand Talents grant. Weber recommended ending the scientist's ability to serve as the principal investigator on grants and imposing “employment-related sanctions.” He also opined that the researcher had “likely violated State law” and recommended referring the researcher's case “to appropriate law enforcement authorities for possible criminal prosecution.”

That researcher's lawyer fiercely protested Weber's findings, arguing that MD Anderson investigators had misunderstood and misrepresented the researcher's interactions with people in China. The lawyer noted records showing that the researcher received neither a Thousand Talents grant nor any compensation from the Chinese institution. But Weber was unmoved, writing that because the scientist had offered services to a Chinese institution, “it is immaterial whether Dr. X actually was paid.”

Based on Weber's reports, MD Anderson says it moved to terminate three of the researchers. Two resigned before the termination process was complete. Weber concluded that a fourth scientist broke some NIH and university rules, but that “several ameliorating factors” argued against termination. A fifth case is still under investigation.

Some people familiar with the cases—and sympathetic to the researchers—believe Weber misread routine scientific collaborations and was unfairly harsh regarding relatively minor infractions.

MD Anderson's critics say the terminations are part of a broader pattern, noting that 10 senior cancer center researchers or administrators of Chinese descent have retired, resigned, or been placed on administrative leave in the past 17 months. Some of the departed researchers reportedly left of their own accord, but their supporters say a toxic climate and the perception of racial profiling hastened their departure.

The events have also renewed calls for FBI to explain why it has been interviewing ethnically Chinese faculty at MD Anderson over the past 17 months. No scientist has been charged with a federal crime, although observers note MD Anderson put at least one faculty member named by NIH on leave in December 2017, just a week after FBI obtained access to certain email accounts. (One MD Anderson researcher was charged under state law with a crime unconnected to grant reporting or foreign ties; the charges were ultimately dropped.)

“From the Asian American community perspective, the investigations, in general, came out of the blue and involved only Chinese American scientists,” says Aryani Ong, an activist in Rockville, Maryland, who has organized meetings with U.S. intelligence officials on racial profiling. “The fear and confusion may have been mitigated if the institution had first engaged with employees and ensured compliance.”

Ong is concerned that, as efforts by federal agencies to address foreign influence take hold, there could be a “brain drain” as scientists “leave under a cloud of suspicion.”

Mien-Chie Hung, a Taiwanese-born researcher who recently left MD Anderson, echoes that view. In February, Hung retired from his position as the cancer center's vice president for basic research to take a job as president of China Medical University in Taichung, Taiwan. (His move wasn't connected to any investigation, he says.) In March, he co-authored a letter published in the 22 March issue of Science (p. 1290) raising concerns about possible racial profiling at institutions across the country, expressing hope that “increased security measures will not be used to tarnish law-abiding scientists.”

Pisters says he is sensitive to those concerns. “In situations where individuals, small in number, have undergone investigations like this, I can understand why groups might feel they're being singled out,” he says. But he adds that “This is part of a much larger issue the country is facing, trying to balance an open collaborative environment and at the same time protect proprietary information and commercial interests.”

How best to achieve that balance is likely to get further attention in coming months, as NIH, other federal research agencies, and members of Congress continue to probe how U.S. science funders are defending against improper foreign influence. Senator Chuck Grassley (R–IA), for example, has asked the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense to describe what steps they are taking to safeguard their peer review processes and programs, and the Department of Energy is developing new rules for funding foreign collaborations that involve sensitive technologies.

In the meantime, more universities are expected to reveal how they have responded to NIH's letters, the most recent of which went out last month. Science and the Houston Chronicle have identified three institutions in addition to MD Anderson that have received letters focusing on a total of eight faculty members. Four of these researchers are at the Baylor College of Medicine, and one is at the UT Health Science Center, both located here. Three work at a major research university that asked for anonymity.

At that university and at Baylor, administrators concluded that most of the seven researchers flagged by NIH had broken rules, but the violations were not serious enough to merit termination. The officials said all seven researchers are ethnically Chinese.

  • * This story was produced in collaboration with the Houston Chronicle, with reporting by the Chronicle's Todd Ackerman, as well as Science's Jeffrey Mervis and Jocelyn Kaiser. This story was supported by the Science Fund for Investigative Reporting.

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