HOUSTON, TEXAS—The MD Anderson Cancer Center here has ousted 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 involving confidentiality of peer review and the disclosure of foreign ties. The researchers are among five MD Anderson scientists that NIH cited in letters to the cancer center, which is part of the University of Texas (UT) system. MD Anderson officials say they invoked termination proceedings against three of the researchers, are still investigating allegations against one, and determined termination was not warranted for the fifth scientist.
The new developments are linked to a sweeping effort launched last year by NIH to address growing U.S. government fears that foreign nations, particularly China, are taking unfair advantage of federally funded research. NIH says its inquiries about the foreign ties of specific NIH-funded researchers have prompted at least 55 institutions to launch investigations. The cases at MD Anderson, which received $148 million in NIH funding in 2018, are the first publicly known instances where NIH’s inquiries appear to have led an institution to invoke termination proceedings against researchers judged to have violated the rules.
Cancer center officials have not named any of the five researchers. MD Anderson President Peter Pisters says all are “Asian”; Science has confirmed that three are ethnically Chinese. Several faced NIH inquiries about their ties to China, according to internal cancer center documents and NIH emails provided by MD Anderson to the Houston Chronicle and reviewed by Science. Those documents also show that MD Anderson has been working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for several years on undisclosed national security investigations, which included searches of faculty email accounts and in one instance, video surveillance. Those investigations could be linked to the recent departures and to the NIH letters; MD Anderson had put at least one faculty member named by NIH on leave in December 2017, months before NIH sent its letter and 1 week after FBI gained access to several MD Anderson network accounts.