Administrators at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, yesterday tried to reassure alarmed employees that its recent dismissals of faculty members alleged to have broken federal funding rules were not connected to race or ethnicity.
“I can assure you 100% that this is not based on ethnicity,” Stephen Hahn, chief medical executive at the institution, told a group of MD Anderson employees who attended a town hall meeting Monday morning. “This is something that we abhor and that we would never do,” he said, according to an audio recording obtained by ScienceInsider.
MD Anderson administrators called the meeting after Science and the Houston Chronicle last week reported that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) had asked the cancer center to investigate possible rule violations by at least five of its scientists, including failing to protect the confidentiality of peer review and failing to report foreign funding and business ties. In particular, NIH raised concerns about ties to funding programs and institutions in China.
MD Anderson says it moved to terminate three of the researchers and concluded that a fourth scientist committed violations that did not justify termination. A fifth researcher is still under investigation.
MD Anderson President Peter Pisters has said that all of the five faculty were “Asian.” At least three are ethnically Chinese, Science has learned.
During Monday's meeting, one researcher worried that “an increasingly xenophobic and isolationist” federal government was prompting MD Anderson to act rashly. “How can you—and I plead, please—reassure all of our employees that we as an institution and academia are not being manipulated as part of a centralized policy to practice and to act in ways that are diametrically opposite to our core values?” he asked.
Others at the meeting raised concerns that the institution’s process for reporting foreign ties was unclear. There is “a great deal of confusion and, really, fear” about the institution’s conflict of interest policy, one person said. At a previous meeting, she asserted, the chair of the conflict of interest committee clashed with a compliance officer on what researchers had to disclose, and what they did not have to disclose.
A third researcher spoke about a junior colleague who had been interviewed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which has been conducting “national security” and other investigations at MD Anderson since at least 2017. The colleague had done nothing wrong, he said, and yet the agent made clear that FBI had read his emails.
MD Anderson has confirmed that FBI requested, and it provided, emails from 23 employee accounts in December 2017, shortly before at least one faculty member named in the NIH letters was put on leave. “Are these the only 23 people whose email is being read?” the faculty member asked. “Is everybody subject to this, or are certain groups? … And what are the reasons?”
Hahn assured the group that “We’re not in the process of looking at everybody’s email every day.”
“I have a lab that’s half Chinese and half Italian. … My Chinese students are very concerned,” said Giulio Draetta, the cancer center’s senior vice president and chief scientific officer, and one of the administrators who answered questions at the meeting. But, he noted, “There are competitors—international competitors, competitors within the country—who will make us believe … that MD Anderson is doing something wrong. We’re not doing anything wrong. We’re responding to the [NIH] letters.”
A Chinese faculty member said that since the news of MD Anderson’s actions broke, he had been getting calls from around the world. “They’re asking, ‘Is everything OK with you? Are you leaving MD Anderson?’ Maybe that’s not the intention of the leadership, but that’s a consequence that a specific ethnic group has to bear.”
At one point, Hahn told the group, “You’re hearing from the top of the institution that we are not abandoning working with the rest of the world, including China.”
Correction, 24 April 2019, 9:15 a.m.: As the result of an editing error, the story incorrectly stated the meeting occurred on Tuesday 23 April. It occurred on Monday.