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Emory ousts two Chinese American researchers after investigation into foreign ties

Emory University in Atlanta has ousted two veteran biomedical researchers and shuttered their laboratory after the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, expressed concern about their foreign ties. The researchers “had failed to fully disclose foreign sources of research funding and the extent of their work for research institutions and universities in China,” the university said in a statement first reported today by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Emory has not identified the researchers, but according to a story posted on (in Chinese), they are geneticists Li Xiao-Jiang and Li Shihua. The two researchers, who are married to each other, are Chinese Americans who have both worked at Emory for more than 2 decades, according to biographical information posted online. Both are U.S. citizens. They have been involved in efforts to use CRISPR gene editing to create engineered pigs and monkeys used to study human diseases. NIH Director Francis Collins highlighted their work in a June 2017 blog posting. In March 2018, the pair were co-authors of a paper in Cell that described the creation of a genetically modified pig that could be used to study Huntington disease and received press attention.

The move marks the second publicly known case in which an institution has moved to sever ties with NIH-funded researchers because of the funding agency’s concerns about undisclosed foreign sources of support for their work. Last month, Science and the Houston Chronicle revealed that the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, ousted three senior researchers after receiving letters from NIH declaring that the scientists had committed potentially “serious” violations of agency rules involving confidentiality of peer review and the disclosure of foreign ties. Those researchers are among five MD Anderson scientists that NIH cited in its letters to the Texas cancer center.

Those letters are part of a sweeping NIH effort, launched in August 2018, to address growing U.S. government fears that foreign nations, particularly China, are taking unfair advantage of federally funded research. NIH has said at least 55 institutions have conducted investigations in response to its inquiries, which identify individuals with NIH funding. Earlier this year, NIH “indicated that 190 [principal investigators] have been flagged for suspicious behavior” related to foreign ties, according to a letter Collins sent to Senator Richard Burr (R–NC) on 12 April.

The Emory statement said: “A letter that the NIH sent to many academic research universities” prompted it to begin “an internal investigation.” The institution shared the results of that investigation with NIH, it said, “and the faculty members are no longer employed at Emory.”

“It is important to note that Emory remains committed to the free exchange of ideas and research and to our vital collaborations with researchers from around the world,” the university said. “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.” An Emory spokesperson said today the university “is taking steps to ensure NIH research projects continue.”

It is not clear when the two researchers left Emory or shut down their laboratory, which had sizable funding from NIH. Emory web pages related to the two researchers are no longer accessible. A number of their papers note associations with or funding from Chinese institutions.

This is a developing story.