A Scientist Without a Country: Once hailed as a visionary, Joe Tsien fell under federal investigation. He says he's a victim of bias, but his story doesn't add up.

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Authors: Daniel Golden and Jeff Kao
Date: Feb. 4, 2022
From: The Chronicle of Higher Education(Vol. 68, Issue 11)
Publisher: Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 7,957 words
Lexile Measure: 1230L

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ON SEPTEMBER 9,1999, David Letterman entertained millions of television viewers by rifling on a scientific breakthrough that had made an obscure Princeton assistant professor famous overnight. The late-night host's top-10 list of "Term Paper Topics Written by Genius Mice"--including "A Sociological Study of Why Cats Suck" and "Outsmarting the Mousetrap: Just Take the Cheese Off Really, Really Fast"--saluted Joe Z. Tsien's achievement in genetically engineering a mouse to learn faster and adapt better to changing conditions.

As the years passed, Tsien's fame faded. Then, like hundreds of other scientists at U.S. universities, he found himself in the cross hairs of a federal crackdown on China's theft of American research and expertise. His employer, the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University, and the National Institutes of Health, one of his main funders, accused him of failing to disclose positions and funding in China, as well as his participation in China's lucrative--and controversial--Thousand Talents recruitment program. The university removed his endowed chair, reassigned him to a smaller lab, and blocked him from sending his genetically modified mice to a professor in Shanghai who wanted to study them.

A naturalized U.S. citizen, the 59-year-old Tsien hasn't been charged with any crime. But when he went to China to visit his ailing father in October 2019, FBI and Department of Homeland Security agents seized his laptop and two cellphones at Atlanta's airport. Since his dean didn't authorize the trip, the university stopped paying Tsien's salary. He resigned the next month and sued the university for employment discrimination. He hasn't returned to the United States for fear of being arrested.

The federal purge has spurred criticism for ensnaring researchers who didn't stray outside accepted practices and whose universities were or should have been aware of their foreign moonlighting. Tsien portrayed himself as one such casualty, and he emphatically denied allegations that he had misled his university and federal authorities. Although the Georgia university system said that it had disciplined him for "legitimate, nondiscriminatory, and nonretaliatory reasons," he complained that he had been singled out because he is Chinese. His treatment by federal agents and the medical college, he wrote, "makes me appreciate much better what Jewish people had suffered and felt under Hitler's Nazi rule."

Tsien has attracted prominent sympathizers. "He is a terrific scientist, extremely well trained and really creative," said Thomas Siidhof, a Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist at Stanford who has known Tsien for 20 years. "I believe he is 100 percent honest. Sometimes he is a bit overenthusiastic, and that may have gotten him into trouble occasionally. But he would be unlikely to commit any kind of infraction of the standard practices of science."

Augusta University records, Chinese media reports, and obscure filings tucked away in Chinese and American courts, plus conversations with Tsien and his friends and colleagues in both countries, tell a more complicated story. They show that Tsien is far less a victim than he asserts, and that he concealed key aspects of his dealings, including efforts to seek...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A694379198