Jeannie Lee received the $100,000 Lurie Prize in Biomedical Sciences in 2016, the year the Howard Hughes Medical Institute decided to end her Investigator Award.

Foundation for the National Institutes of Health

Howard Hughes Medical Institute faces race, sex bias lawsuits by two Asian American biologists

Two Asian American women biologists who failed to win renewals of plum awards from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) are suing the private medical research funder, alleging discrimination on the basis of sex and race or national origin.

Jeannie Lee, 55, an epigeneticist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and a naturalized U.S. citizen of Taiwanese origin, failed in 2016 to win a third renewal of her 5-year HHMI Investigator Award. She sued in August, asserting that a significantly lower percentage of Asian American women than whites win renewals of these generous employment contracts. She is also suing for age and sex discrimination; the suit claims that women aged 50 or older are less likely to be renewed than their male peers. It also alleges that Thomas Cech, 72, a white biochemist and former HHMI president with whom Lee is in a scientific dispute, undermined HHMI's review of Lee's work.

Separately, Vivian Cheung, 52, an RNA biologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, in March filed a Charge of Discrimination against HHMI with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This month, she received an EEOC notice giving her the right to sue, which she plans to do soon. Her EEOC filing alleges that HHMI's failure to renew her Investigator Award in 2018 was due to discrimination based on race, sex, and disability. (Cheung has a rare genetic disorder causing progressive vision loss.)

"Who is going to fight this fight for many minority women if I don't?" Cheung asks.

Lee said in a statement: "I'd rather not have to pursue this, but it's important to speak out because any kind of discrimination slows scientific progress."

HHMI President Erin O'Shea said in a written statement, "We are fully confident in the integrity of our review process." She added: "We respect Drs. Lee and Cheung and value their contributions during their tenures as HHMI Investigators. … While we cannot provide details of personnel matters, particularly in cases of litigation, we have investigated these claims and believe they have no merit."

HHMI last month moved to dismiss parts of Lee's lawsuit that allege that it breached its contract with her by not renewing her and underpaying her. HHMI declined to share data on renewal rates by race, gender, and age, and publicly available data are incomplete.

With its $20.1 billion endowment, HHMI currently supports 260 scientists with coveted Investigator Awards, which now provide 7 years of salary and research support, making each award worth about $8 million. Investigators run their labs at their home institutions but are employed by HHMI. Investigators seeking renewal present their work to a peer-review panel and HHMI leaders at the institute's Chevy Chase, Maryland, headquarters.

In September 2016, Lee, an expert in how one of two X chromosomes is turned off during female development, was judged for renewal. During the award term from 2011 to 2016, she had published 18 research papers as senior author, five of them in NatureScience, or Cell; applied for 24 patents; and, in 2015, been elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

She had also clashed publicly with Cech over the workings of an enzyme, polycomb repressive complex-2, which helps silence gene expression by binding to RNA during development and cancer. Lee argued that the enzyme binds RNA at specific sites with critical functions; Cech, now an HHMI investigator at the University of Colorado in Boulder, argued that the enzyme binds "promiscuously" to RNA.

Lee's lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts alleges that Cech, who made the case for his own renewal to HHMI peer reviewers earlier on that September day, told them that Lee's model had been supplanted by his own. When Lee's turn came, the HHMI reviewers repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of her model, according to the lawsuit. It adds that their written comments accused her of being dogmatic and "undermin[ing] … resolution" of the dispute with Cech. But according to the lawsuit, data from Lee's lab and dozens of articles by other scientists had confirmed her model at the time. Cech declined to comment on Lee's science, but their dispute continues.

Lee earned a "C" from the HHMI peer reviewers and lost her award, whereas Cech earned an "A," the lawsuit states. "HHMI applied a different standard to Dr. Cech, choosing to credit, reward and renew a white man and to discredit, not renew and criticize an Asian woman, where both had strongly held scientific views on a common subject," the lawsuit alleges.

Cech, a 1989 Nobel laureate in chemistry, says he can't comment on active litigation. But he notes that as president of HHMI from 1999 to 2009, he opened Investigator Award applications to all, ending institutional nominations with the goal of drawing more diverse applicants. "Encouraging diversity is a core value for me," Cech wrote in an email. O'Shea's statement also notes that several HHMI programs aim to boost diversity and that HHMI is "committed to progress" in this area.

Cheung, who studies RNA processing in human cells, won an Investigator Award in 2008 and was renewed in 2013. Her Charge of Discrimination alleges that after she was diagnosed in 2014, HHMI refused at first to grant her accommodations—an extra assistant and the ability to work remotely—and threatened to terminate her contract. Then, before her second renewal review, the charge states, HHMI officials pressured her to accept a 5-year phaseout award. She refused.

Joan Williams of the University of California (UC) Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, who has written on gender bias faced by female scientists of color, notes that both Cheung and Lee bucked authority, Cheung by refusing to accept HHMI's 5-year phaseout funding, and Lee by publicly taking on Cech's science. "The research shows that Asian Americans who behave in dominant ways rather than deferential ones often trigger dislike by whites in the United States," she says.

Williams adds that the scientific dispute between Lee and Cech may have worked against her. "It's a very, very common pattern where if there are questions raised about the quality of somebody's work, they can be much more corrosive to a person's career if you are not a majority man."

Several other Asian American women who were discontinued as HHMI investigators—one in her late 40s and others in their early 50s—spoke to Science of their shock and dismay when they were not renewed. "Were they prejudiced against me as Asian? I think it's kind of a given. If you are Asian, you have to do so, so much better, and that's not even enough. You have to have friends," recalls one, who was senior author on two papers in Science, and many others, in the term before she lost her award.

Says another, whose many publications included four papers in NatureCell, or Science in the term before she was discontinued: "I was really shocked. … For me the glass ceiling was everywhere."

Still another, Xuemei Chen, 52, is a naturalized U.S. citizen who grew up in China and studies RNA biology at UC Riverside. She says she was devastated in 2017 when her initial Investigator Award was not renewed. The two white men in her field who were also up for review won renewals. "My work is no less groundbreaking," Chen says.

But neuroscientist Amita Sehgal of the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine, who grew up in India, says: "I cannot remember a single instance where at HHMI I felt discriminated against or overlooked because of being Asian American." Her HHMI award was renewed for the fourth time in 2017, when she was 56. After each renewal, she says, "I have basically walked away feeling like the process was fair."