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University firings raise tensions in academia

By Zhang Ruinan in New York and Zhang Yangfei in Beijing | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-05-31 03:24
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Chinese-American professors' US tenures ended

A view of Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, the US, Aug 1, 2014. [Photo/IC]

The decision by a prestigious university in the United States to terminate the tenures of two Chinese-American professors has heightened concerns among researchers and administrators at academic institutions.

One of the professors, Li Xiaojiang, a veteran neuroscientist at the Department of Human Genetics at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, who had worked there for 23 years, issued a statement on the decision to Science magazine.

Li said he 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".

The private university said in a statement that the decision came after an investigation by the institution prompted by a National Institutes of Health inquiry.

It said the inquiry revealed that two of its faculty members named as key personnel on NIH grant awards to the university had failed to fully disclose foreign sources of funding and the extent of their work for institutions and universities in China.

Although the university did not name the former faculty members, Science magazine identified them as Li and his wife, Li Shihua, both professors of biology and also US citizens.

According to Li's statement, the university fired the couple on May 16 when they were traveling in China. It also closed a laboratory jointly led by the couple and told four Chinese postdoctoral students who worked there to leave the US within 30 days.

The action came after the NIH, the main funding source for biomedical and public health research in the US, sent a letter to more than 10,000 academic research institutions in August urging them to work with it and other agencies, including the FBI, to crack down on foreign influence.

Recipients of US federal funds must disclose if they are also receiving funds from other countries, and they are not permitted to share their grant applications with foreign entities.

Last month, NIH Director Francis Collins told a Senate committee that the agency was investigating NIH-funded foreign scientists at more than 55 US institutions, according to Science magazine.

Li said he had disclosed his Chinese research activity to Emory University each year since 2012, adding that he had provided documents requested by the university during the investigation.

He also said he had not received any copy of the investigation that was sent to the NIH by the university, although he had asked Emory for one.

US media reports said the NIH alleged the couple had also been hired for positions in China, where they received funding to create shadow laboratories to conduct the same research they were doing in the US.

The couple said they felt their case was part of a larger problem with the way foreigners are treated in the US, adding that the university's action "negatively derides Emory faculty members and international visitors, especially those of Chinese origin".

They urged the university's president to issue a statement to "recognize the contributions of Emory's diverse global community, and the innumerable benefits to science, research and education locally and globally".

The university said in a statement that it "remains committed to the free exchange of ideas and research and to our vital collaborations with researchers from around the world. At the same time, Emory also takes very seriously its obligation to be a good steward of federal research dollars and to ensure compliance with all funding disclosure and other requirements".

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