Of Mice and Men: How Joe Tsien became a celebrated scientist without a country
Celebrated scientist Joe Tsien retreated to China after his Georgia university and the U.S. government began investigating him. He says he is a victim of anti-Asian discrimination, but key parts of his story do not add up.
On September 9, 1999, David Letterman entertained millions of television viewers by riffing 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 crosshairs of a federal crackdown on China’s theft of American research and expertise. His employer, the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University, and one of his main funders, the National Institutes of Health, 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. Augusta University regarded Tsien as being absent from work without leave and stopped paying his salary. Tsien resigned the next month and sued the university for employment discrimination. He hasn’t returned to the U.S. 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 misled his university and federal authorities. Although the Georgia university system said that it disciplined him for “legitimate, nondiscriminatory and non-retaliatory reasons,” he complained that he was singled out because he was 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 Sudhof, a Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist at Stanford who has known Tsien for 20 years. “I believe he is 100% 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 and commercialize Chinese patents for American-funded research.
The documents and Tsien’s associates depict him as an ambitious outsider in both his native and adopted countries, part schemer and part dreamer. There was no indication that he was aiming to help China or its government at the expense of the U.S. His goals appeared to be personal: to advance himself and his family.
Tsien’s career spanned the arc of American higher education’s relationship with China. He flourished in an era when U.S. universities were eager to attract Chinese students and partner with Chinese institutions. The American schools looked to professors educated in China, like Tsien, to guide them. But as the U.S. perceived China as a growing economic threat, what American academia had once celebrated as fruitful collaborations came to be condemned as “conflicts of commitment,” and Tsien’s penchant for skirting the rules and undermining his own prospects caught up with him.
Even before his downfall, his career was one of the more turbulent in the annals of neuroscience. Brilliant and charming, but quick to take offense and indifferent to other people’s opinions of his ideas, he tended to alienate powerful scientists and administrators whom he needed to cultivate. In the end, Tsien proved more adept at dealing with mice than men.
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People who know Tsien say his difficulty in reading social signals may stem from a disrupted childhood. The Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong’s brutal campaign to impose ideological purity, was the central event of Tsien’s youth. His family — his father was a clerk, his mother an accountant — was relocated from the city of Changzhou to a small village.
“Those of us who come from the Cultural Revolution, we don’t have political skill,” said one longtime friend, who requested anonymity. “Not only him, me too. There’s a lack of skill in dealing with complex human relationships.”
Still, Tsien made the best of his new surroundings. Roaming the countryside, “I became fascinated by how dragonflies can fly and suddenly stop in midair, or how ants navigate and search for food and then find their way home.”
His high school, run by a fabric factory primarily for employees’ children, was less than stellar, but he supplemented it with after-school classes in math and physics, and he passed the national college entrance exam. As a sophomore biology major at East China Normal University in Shanghai, he helped out in a neurophysiology lab. The “pop” of pigeons’ neurons firing in electrical pulses, converted to sound by an oscilloscope, “made me hooked to the mystery of the brain.” After graduating in 1984, he became a research assistant on a beer fermentation project. “My daily duty was to inoculate yeasts in the evening and taste beers in the morning.” He took advantage of the nap time allotted for hangover recovery to study English and apply to U.S. graduate schools.
He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1990, followed by postdoctoral study at Columbia under Eric Kandel, who would go on to win a Nobel Prize, and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under Susumu Tonegawa, who had already won one. He married another China-born researcher in 1987, and they had two sons before divorcing in 2011.
At Columbia and MIT, Tsien studied memory and learning by manipulating genes in rodents’ brains. His first breakthrough came when he developed a method to delete a particular gene in a region of the brain that was vital to memory. Mice without the gene proved more forgetful.
Moving to Princeton in 1997, Tsien took a different approach — zeroing in on a gene called NR2B that was believed to be related to memory and injecting it into mice. The result surpassed his expectations. In August 1999, he announced he had created a smarter mouse, which he nicknamed “Doogie,” after Doogie Howser, the precocious hero of a television medical drama. His research made the cover of Time. The New York Times, ABC News, the BBC and other media hailed his achievement, and the journal Science chose it as one of the top 10 breakthroughs of 1999.
People in China noticed too. Tsien’s alma mater, East China Normal, awarded him $300,000 in 2001 for his “imaginative research on learning and memory” and for “promoting academic exchange and collaboration between ECNU and Princeton neurobiologists.” Tsien then collaborated on research at East China Normal, which reimbursed his travel expenses. In 2002, it supplied him with a 1,200-square-foot apartment in Shanghai, according to filings in his divorce case. He stayed there when he was in Shanghai, and his parents lived there. He also brought some of East China Normal’s faculty and students to Princeton as visiting scholars.
Shirley Tilghman, then Princeton’s president, congratulated him on “this major recognition from your own university” and praised his work in a commencement address. Given Tilghman’s tributes and his high-profile publications in prestigious journals, he seemed like a shoo-in when he came up for tenure in 2004. Instead, the confidential proceedings became contentious, according to faculty members who requested anonymity. Many colleagues in the molecular biology department backed Tsien, but some complained that he oversold his research findings or didn’t care enough about teaching. Tsien said he received favorable evaluations from students.
Tsien believes that his mentors Kandel and Tonegawa, whom Princeton would likely have consulted, weighed in against him. Tonegawa had been upset that Tsien, who had begun genetically modifying mice at MIT, did not list him as a co-author on the “smart mouse” article. Also, against Tonegawa’s wishes, Tsien had taken transgenic mice from MIT to Princeton to launch his own lab.
“This project started while he was here,” Tonegawa told the Newark Star-Ledger in 1999. “MIT has at least partial ownership. What is made in the lab usually belongs in the lab. … I couldn’t say [Tsien] is one of the most collegial or cooperative person. Since Joe Tsien left my lab years ago we have not been in touch at all.”
Tsien said that Tonegawa did not deserve credit and was jealous of his acclaim. Kandel did not respond to requests for comment.
Two Princeton faculty members said they had heard that Kandel and Tonegawa opposed Tsien. “Joe seems to have a pattern of exceptionally good relationships with important people, and then having them end up feeling betrayed by him in some way,” one said.
Ultimately, Tsien was denied tenure. It was a devastating blow. “I have learned what it meant to be the victim of your own success,” he said. Years later in Georgia, nostalgic for the scene of his greatest triumph, he would tie Princeton Tigers balloons to the cages of his genetically altered mice.
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The same accomplishments that had seemed to assure Tsien’s future at Princeton made him a coveted free agent. David Farb, chairman of pharmacology at Boston University’s medical school, lured him there with a professorship at a “very high” salary, a newly renovated lab and at least $750,000 in research funding that had once been ticketed for Farb’s own work.
“I was in my glory,” Farb recalled. “Everyone said, ‘I can’t believe you recruited someone like Joe Tsien from Princeton.’”
Opinions shifted when Tsien began quarreling with medical school administrators over how much of the cost of housing his mice should be borne by BU and how much by his NIH grants. Tsien heightened the tensions by accusing BU officials of discriminating against him because of his race, a claim that Farb didn’t believe. “I thought it was a cheap shot.”
The animal experimentation committee criticized Tsien for leaving mice too long in the lab rather than returning them to the vivarium. “He was a big shot,” Farb said. “He felt like, ‘Why are they bothering me with this trivia?’” Farb advised Tsien to be more vigilant, and the pharmacology chair appointed a compliance officer to monitor Tsien’s lab and expenditures.
“I felt very badly” about these conflicts, Farb said. “I thought he was a good faculty member. For myself personally, I was being demonized as this department chair who brought in somebody who was spending all this money. People who had been strong supporters of the recruitment turned against it.”
Tsien said that his disagreements with the BU administration were “minor,” and he didn’t recall the details. Regarding the mice, he said they had to be kept undisturbed in the neural recording rooms for days to measure their long-term memory. The committee disrupted the experiments for several weeks, he said. “The event left a bad taste.”
Tsien’s frequent travels to Shanghai likely magnified the resentment. Many researchers in his lab came from China and were funded by its government. Farb wondered about the relationship, but he decided that on the whole it benefited the school.
“I’d see the papers published and try to figure out, ‘Is this a pharmacology department publication?’” Farb said. “Is it the Shanghai institute” at East China Normal where Tsien helped train faculty? “I didn’t know. Are they the same mice? Nobody was really asking at the time. Maybe they were totally separate. It was a Wild West. I was looking at it as a good thing. Joe is giving us a bridge to a big lab in China. Talented people are coming to the department on their own money. Who was I to raise questions? What am I going to say but, ‘Congratulations, Joe, you’re a great hire, you have four big NIH grants.’ I liked him. Some people didn’t.”
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Founded in 1828, the Medical College of Georgia is part of the state university system and one of the nation’s oldest and largest medical schools. It capitalized on Tsien’s discontent, recruiting him to Augusta in 2007. Tsien received a $250,000 salary, a $2.5 million startup fund for his research and up to $300,000 a year to cover the cost of 1,100-1,200 mouse cages. The key draw was a $10 million commitment from the Georgia Research Alliance, a nonprofit created by state leaders to boost the economy through scientific discovery. It paid for a $3.6 million lab designed to monitor brain activity in mice, including eight recording rooms.
Tsien was named one of the research alliance’s Eminent Scholars and appointed co-director of a new Brain and Behavior Discovery Institute at the Medical College of Georgia. He was given funding to hire three junior and three senior faculty members. His office adjoining the lab was cluttered with books, awards and mementoes, including a cage containing a battery-powered, furry mouse with blinking red eyes — an allusion to the discovery that made him famous.
The Georgia Research Alliance’s support also included $1 million to develop a colony of transgenic rhesus monkeys in China. Tsien planned to replicate his experiments on intelligence and memory with monkeys, which are closer to humans in evolutionary terms than mice are. But it was hard to obtain approval in the U.S. to genetically alter primates, and monkeys were cheaper in China. So he planned to inject genes into monkeys at the Banna Primate Model Animal Center in the Xishuangbanna prefecture of Yunnan province in southwest China. He would then ship half of the monkeys to Georgia, where the alliance had allotted $500,000 for a second colony, for more experiments. He described the Banna center as an important research institute with roots going back to the early 1980s.
The medical college backed the international project. “We believe that his efforts in China will prove to be mutually beneficial,” then-Dean Douglas Miller wrote to the Chinese Natural Science Foundation in 2010. “Therefore we endorse, with great enthusiasm, Dr. Tsien’s collaborative research projects” at Banna.
Tsien’s China connections aided other professors at the medical college. Two colleagues had shown that curcumin, a yellow substance in curry powder, could help in treating cerebral hemorrhages. But there was a practical barrier; curcumin wasn’t easily absorbed in the stomach. “You have to eat a lot of curry to get the benefit,” one of the scientists said. Tsien put them in touch with researchers at East China Normal, who manufactured more soluble curcumin compounds. East China Normal and Augusta jointly patented the discovery.
The university’s then-president, Ricardo Azziz, valued Tsien’s network in China. Like many presidents at the time, Azziz was eager to increase his university’s visibility and attract international students by gaining a foothold there. He approached Tsien, described the goal of building a globally competitive university and urged him to help. Tsien began reaching out to colleagues in China, paving the way for Azziz to meet them.
In the next few years, Tsien accompanied Azziz on three trips to China. He gave “very clear advice about what would benefit our institution,” Azziz recalls. “He kept the interests of our university as his focus.” Tsien acted as interpreter and cultural guide, making sure that the president didn’t commit any faux pas. At his suggestion, Azziz brought gifts for their hosts, such as coffee mugs or hats with the university’s logo — but not clocks, which in China are considered bad luck. Since Azziz found the expensive chopsticks supplied at formal dinners too slippery, Tsien began carrying a pair of cheap disposable chopsticks in his pocket. When he thought no one was looking, he would swap them in for Azziz.
The chopsticks diplomacy paid off. A partnership with the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine led to the 2014 opening of a Confucius Institute on the Augusta campus. Partly funded and staffed by China, the institute not only taught acupuncture and other techniques, but it also offered instruction in martial arts and Chinese music, and sponsored events for the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Concentrating on his brain research, and without expertise in Chinese medicine, Tsien had no desire to be the institute’s founding director. But Azziz couldn’t find anyone else, and Tsien reluctantly accepted the position. His second wife, whom he had met while she was a grants coordinator at East China Normal, became the institute’s global affairs coordinator. In addition, Augusta and East China Normal signed a five-year “friendship and cooperation” agreement in 2016, envisioning student and teacher exchanges, joint conferences and cultural events.
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Tsien’s talents also impressed the U.S. Army. John Parmentola, U.S. Army director for research and laboratory management from 2001 to 2009, was seeking to expand its neuroscience research. After reading Tsien’s 2007 Scientific American cover article, “The Memory Code,” Parmentola invited him to speak at its science conference. Tsien then appeared in a video funded by Parmentola’s office, “The Science of Victory,” about the importance of research to the military. The relationship led to the Pentagon funding research by Tsien about how blast injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder affect the brain.
“He’s clearly a gifted and talented individual, and that should really be the focus of who he is and why his work is so important,” Parmentola said.
In his Georgia office, Tsien proudly displayed a coin Parmentola had given him, which commemorated his speech at the Army conference. Even on his visits to China, Tsien couldn’t hide his affection for his adopted country. To the apparent dismay of Chinese officials, he rhapsodized about American freedoms, especially the rights to vote and to own a gun. Tsien had collected a dozen guns — handguns, pistols, shotguns and an antique Soviet rifle — and he liked to shoot at a range on weekends.
“You don’t ever have to worry about the government coming after you,” Tsien would tell the Chinese administrators.
The Chinese “were getting uptight,” said Shawn Vincent, a former vice president for partnerships at the university’s affiliated health system, with whom Tsien also went to China. “You could see the government people look at each other. … Their eyes all got big. I just thought he couldn’t necessarily read the room.” When Vincent warned him to be careful, Tsien laughed it off.
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Despite his contributions as a China liaison, Tsien’s status at the medical college depended on his research. Unfortunately, one of his big projects — the monkey colonies — was misfiring, both in China and in the U.S. Several Banna researchers, who he had trained, left for a neuroscience institute in Shanghai. The Georgia facility needed more funding, but the economic downturn and increasing animal rights protests against monkey research doomed it.
At the same time, his scientific curiosity was leading him deeper into the mysteries of the mind. His attention shifted from the genetic experiments that had made his reputation to the basic design underlying intelligence and memory. His recordings of electrical impulses in mouse brains stimulated by various traumatic events showed patterns of activity among groups of neurons, which he called “cliques.” One day in 2014, he had an epiphany: A simple mathematical equation could describe how the cliques organized themselves into the building blocks of brain computation — and ultimately explain how the brain generates abstract concepts and knowledge. The implications of what he called the “Theory of Connectivity” bowled him over.
Staking his career on this sweeping theory, though, was a considerable risk. It was outside his specialty and hard to prove. Sure enough, top journals such as Nature, Science and Cell rejected his manuscripts, although they were ultimately published in other respected peer-reviewed journals.
His pivot from practice to theory affected his research funding, much to the university’s consternation. His grants dropped from $1,657,981 in 2009 to $536,350 in 2017, according to the university. “Joe had a lot of grant dollars at one point,” Vincent said. “Some of those were starting to go away. I do remember … whispers” and words of caution from colleagues. “If you want to be safe, you stay within the guardrails.”
Tsien was vulnerable for another reason. Although he stepped down as soon as a successor was found, his brief time running the Confucius Institute on campus was unlikely to endear him to the U.S. government. The institutes were starting to draw criticism as outlets for Chinese government propaganda or potential listening posts for spies.
Augusta’s institute sparked immediate pushback from officials at nearby Fort Gordon, which was becoming a nerve center for U.S. intelligence. The National Security Agency had a major operation there, and in December 2013, the U.S. Army Cyber Command announced Fort Gordon as its new headquarters.
“We got pressure from friends at Fort Gordon who were concerned about our growing ties with China,” recalls Azziz, who resigned in 2015. “I explained this was a cultural thing.”
The university couldn’t afford to alienate Fort Gordon officials. Its 9,600 students include about 285 veterans and active-duty service members whose tuition is subsidized by the U.S. government, and its Military & Veteran Services office helps them adjust to college. Its fast-growing master’s program in intelligence and security studies benefits from its proximity to NSA and Cyber Command.
Fort Gordon’s dismay was echoed nationwide as attitudes toward China shifted. The number of Confucius Institutes nationwide has plummeted from more than 100 in 2017 to 24, according to the National Association of Scholars. Augusta’s shut down in 2019. As for the friendship agreement with East China Normal, nothing came of it, and it was not renewed.
As the relationship between Beijing and Washington grew increasingly tense, federal agencies that funded research began scrutinizing applicants with ties to China. NIH, which had long encouraged collaborations with China, learned from the FBI in 2016 that an Asian faculty member at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston had broken the rules by showing federal grant proposals he was reviewing to other researchers. The NIH examined grant applications and found that some researchers it funded weren’t disclosing dual appointments at Chinese universities. In August 2018, NIH director Francis Collins wrote to universities and academic medical centers, cautioning them that grant applicants and awardees “must disclose support coming from foreign governments or other foreign entities.” Augusta University, which relied on the NIH for 60% of its research funding from 2016 through 2021, had to pay attention.
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In March 2018, the dean of the medical college, David Hess, told Tsien that the Department of Homeland Security had been asking about his frequent travel to China. Hess officially eliminated Tsien’s brain research institute, which the university had stopped funding in 2013, and laid off his administrative assistant.
The following February, Tsien was called into Hess’ office. The dean read aloud a letter to Tsien from the university’s vice president of human resources. “Recently it has come to our attention that you appear to currently hold two employment positions in China that create the potential for conflicts of interest,” the letter stated. The university was launching an “immediate investigation.” While it was undertaken, the university banned him from business travel and working off-campus.
Hess also instructed Tsien to fill out the university’s required annual conflict-of-interest form. In his more than a decade at the medical college, Tsien had never completed the form, which asked about outside income, activities and business ownership. And, apparently, no supervisor had reminded him to. Hess said that oversight of the forms was divided between several offices, and that most faculty members filled them out.
“If I go 80 mph on the highway and no one catches me, I’m still breaking the law,” Hess said.
Tsien said that he didn’t receive the conflict-of-interest forms. Numerous articles in Chinese media about him cited affiliations that — if accurate — should likely have been disclosed on university forms. One said he was a Thousand Talents Program expert and a funded professor at East China Normal University, and that a team led by Tsien had developed a drug screening device that was recognized by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security and displayed at the Interpol General Assembly held in Beijing in September 2017. In 2018, Tsien was described as a director of a neuroscience research center in Xi’an.
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As the university’s investigation of Tsien’s connections to China ramped up, other scientists’ careers were also being derailed. Since November 2018, when then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “China Initiative” to combat economic espionage, the Department of Justice has criminally charged at least 25 researchers who were not employed by industry. Most of them worked at universities and allegedly committed fraud or made false statements in connection with unreported income or affiliations in China.
Some of these cases have fallen apart, spurring criticism that they amounted to racial profiling. In July, the Biden administration dropped charges against five visiting researchers who had been accused of hiding ties to China’s military. After the trial of Anming Hu, a former University of Tennessee at Knoxville nanotechnology professor accused of hiding his part-time teaching position in Beijing from NASA, ended in a hung jury, the Department of Justice sought a retrial. In September, a federal district court judge acquitted him. Judge Thomas Varlan ruled that Hu did not intend to deceive NASA, which is restricted by Congress from funding collaborations with China, and that there was “no evidence that NASA did not receive exactly the type of research that it bargained for.” The university then offered to rehire him. In another setback for the China Initiative, it was reported that federal prosecutors are expected to drop charges against Gang Chen, an engineering professor at MIT who had been accused of concealing ties to the Chinese government and its talent recruitment programs. The Justice Department did achieve a notable triumph in December when a federal jury convicted Charles Lieber, former chair of Harvard’s chemistry department, of lying about his participation in the Thousand Talents Program. Lieber’s lawyers have said he plans to appeal.
While the criminal cases have attracted the bulk of media attention, actions by federal agencies that fund academic research, and by universities themselves, have affected far more professors. In April 2021, Michael Lauer, NIH deputy director for extramural research, told Congress that more than 100 scientists had been removed from the “NIH ecosystem.”
By November, NIH had expressed concern to institutions about 228 scientists with possible problems related to foreign interference. Of these, 191, or 84%, were found to be linked to a “serious violation.” More than 60%, a total of 141, were excluded from receiving NIH grants, including 90 who were fired or quit their jobs. Only 11, or 5%, were cleared. More than three-fourths of the 228 scientists identified themselves as Asian, and China was the “country of concern” in 210 cases, or 92%. Almost half of the cases originated with NIH; universities self-disclosed nearly 30%; and the rest were referred by the Department of Justice or FBI.
Lauer said that NIH does not discriminate against researchers of Chinese descent. Most of NIH’s cases involve scientists born in China, he said, because China’s aggressive brain-gain programs such as Thousand Talents offer expatriates generous stipends, cutting-edge labs and other incentives for full-time or part-time work at Chinese universities.
Thousand Talents contracts give the Chinese university “at least some rights” to inventions developed in the U.S., and they may also require participating scientists to keep their work in China secret, according to a 2019 report by the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Of the 228 scientists identified by NIH, 124, or 54%, allegedly did not disclose funding from talent programs.
Despite pushback from Asian American rights groups and some universities, Lauer expects the focus on China-related conflicts of interest to continue. “There was no change going from Obama to Trump, and we aren’t seeing any change from Trump to Biden,” he said. Both parties in Congress, he said, have encouraged NIH to be aggressive. Proposed legislation would restrict federal grant recipients from participating in Chinese talent recruitment programs.
Lauer declined to discuss specific professors. Still, he acknowledged that many of them came to NIH’s attention because, far from concealing their Chinese backing, they credited it in their published articles. “It’s actually in their scientific papers, but their [U.S.] universities didn’t notice it,” he said.
Lauer insisted that NIH still encourages international partnerships. “There’s a difference between collaboration and deception,” he said.
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Some China-born professors don’t trust NIH to recognize that difference. One morning last October in the halls of the Medical College of Georgia, a scientist from China lamented the crackdown. “Nothing we can do,” she sighed. “Nothing we can do. I’m a very conservative person. I follow the rules. I do not have any collaboration in China.”
She said she still had Chinese researchers in her lab — for now. “Everyone is scared. The U.S. is no longer welcoming them.” If they go elsewhere, she said, American science would suffer. “Most Chinese students work very hard. No matter how good your ideas are, you need good people.”
Faculty opinion was divided about Tsien. “What happened to Joe was awful, and it speaks to the climate here,” one said. “If they can squeeze someone of his stature out, what would they do to me?” Another said that Tsien doomed himself by denouncing the investigation and “throwing bombs” at administrators.
Tsien wasn’t the only neuroscientist at the medical college with ties to China. Professor Darrell Brann agreed to participate in a Chinese recruitment program, the Hebei Foreign Experts Hundred Talents Plan, as a visiting professor at North China Science and Technology University, for about $70,000, according to Chinese media reports. Brann reported receiving $36,500 from North China in 2017 and 2018 on his Augusta conflict-of-interest form.
Tsien’s lawsuit cited the university’s failure to investigate Brann, who is white, for joining the talents program as evidence of anti-Asian discrimination against Tsien. “Dr. Brann was not the subject of a conflict of interest investigation because such investigation was not warranted,” the university responded in a filing.
Brann declined to comment, but a person close to him described what had happened. A post-doctoral researcher in Brann’s lab at Augusta had connected Brann with a former mentor at North China. Brann then became associated with North China, which eventually asked him to run a major lab. Uncomfortable with this larger role, Brann ended the relationship before receiving the entire $70,000.
Oil paintings of the deans of the medical college dating back to the long-bearded Lewis Ford, who later served as a surgeon in the Confederate Army, lined the hallway to Hess’ office. Hess, a defendant in Tsien’s lawsuit, declined to talk about him or the case. Still, he supported Brann. “I’m sure he followed the rules,” the dean said.
Hess acknowledged that NIH’s attitude toward collaborations with China has changed, and that the college’s success is tied to NIH funding: “If those grants are taken away … we have to make it up.” But that very reliance, he said, ensures that the college doesn’t discriminate against researchers of Chinese descent because they bring in one-third of the school’s NIH money.
“There’s no discrimination against our Chinese American scientists, I assure you,” Hess said. “We’d be crazy to. They’re super productive.”
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As the allegations against him accumulated, Tsien swatted them away, denying that he had taken any undisclosed income from China. The affiliations uncovered by university investigators, he insisted, were unpaid, were speculation by Chinese media or were partnerships under his international Brain Decoding Project — another of his big ideas. As for Thousand Talents membership, he acknowledged the title but not the money. “I did not take personal financial support or talent research funding from it,” he told Augusta. A university in Yunnan, he said, applied to Thousand Talents on his behalf around 2011, offering him a three-month visiting professorship. He declined the position and arranged for the funds to go to the Banna institute.
These defenses were effective. In its final report on his case in December 2019, a month after Tsien resigned, Augusta conceded that it couldn’t substantiate that he had accepted money from China. And while it contended that his frequent travel to China — 12 trips totaling 228 days from July 1, 2016, to Jan. 31, 2019 — had affected his research funding and productivity, it acknowledged that the medical college had approved his absences.
The case against him came down to six patents in China on which Tsien was listed as an inventor under his Chinese name, Zhuo Qian. The patent applications were filed without Augusta’s approval between 2011 and 2015. Reviews by the university’s Office of Innovation Commercialization and by an outside patent attorney it consulted found that these patents were “identical to or derivative from” Tsien’s research at Augusta and that it was likely that he had “participated in the filing of the Chinese patents and provided the information necessary.” And since Augusta, as his employer, owned or co-owned the research, and the university had not been told about the Chinese patents, his actions allegedly constituted theft of intellectual property. If he had not quit, the report concluded, he would have been fired.
The patents related to a technique of measuring and imaging changes in heart and respiration rates remotely, without attaching sensors. Meng Li and Fang Zhao, two researchers in Tsien’s lab, developed the technique under his guidance, with funding from the Georgia Research Alliance, as part of his effort to determine how long mice remember traumatic events such as falling or being shaken in a jar. The technique was patented in the U.S., with Tsien, Meng Li, Fang Zhao and Yi Qian, the director of the Banna Biomedical Research Institute, listed as inventors. Augusta University and the Banna institute co-own that patent.
The Chinese patents did not mention the medical college. All six were co-owned by the Banna Dadu Yunhai Intelligent Technology Development Co. The Banna Biomedical Research Institute shared five. So did the Shanghai Institute of Criminal Science and Technology, which took an interest in the research because technology that can identify variability in physiological rates could be useful for improving lie detectors.
Like Tsien, Fang Zhao was listed as an inventor on all six Chinese patents. Her husband, Meng Li, was listed on five. By 2019, when the university was investigating Tsien, they had left his lab and were working at Harvard University. One day, two FBI agents knocked on the door of their apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and interviewed them for 45 minutes, mostly about Tsien. The agents politely asked about his travel to China, focusing on the patents. Did he apply for them? Had he commercialized them? Was Zhuo Qian his Chinese name? “We answered all the questions we know,” Fang wrote in an email. “However, this incident made us feel uncomfortable.”
The U.S. Department of Justice declined comment on Tsien, saying that it does not discuss active investigations, or confirm or deny whether there is an investigation.
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Tsien said that he wasn’t involved in seeking the China patents. In a carefully phrased response to Augusta, he wrote that the Chinese institutions had sought the patents “based on their own work and resources. … I was not officially approached for any written consent or given an opportunity to read their applications before they filed the patents.”
His co-inventors had done most of the research in China or on their own time, he wrote, and his contribution had been limited to “some non-essential, generic comments to them.”
If he had participated in filing the patents, he said, he would never have used his Chinese name, which was legally invalid because he had changed it to Joseph Z. Tsien when he became a U.S. citizen. He suggested that the other inventors included him on the patents out of gratitude for “getting them acquainted with each other at social gatherings in China,” or because of his luster as a scientist. He also presented a “declaration letter” from the law firm in China that handled the patent applications, attesting that, “We received no document signed by Joseph Tsien or Qian Zhuo.”
In recent years, more than twice as many patent applications have been filed in China as in the U.S. From the local level up, the government in China has often rewarded applicants with subsidies or job promotions. It seemed possible that such incentives had prompted Banna or the co-inventors to apply without Tsien’s knowledge.
But an obscure paragraph in Tsien’s own answers to the university undermined his defense. He wrote that one of the other inventors, Yi Qian, was his sister, and that she, his mother and his mother-in-law were all partners in Dadu, along with Meng Li and Fang Zhao. The company, Tsien wrote, “manages organic tea farms and offers tea, traditional Chinese medicine products, health/wellness and cosmetic products,” raising the question of why it would co-own patents related to research on heart rates.
Tsien had mentioned he had a sister. But he had not detailed that they worked together or shared a patent. “My sister mostly lives with my parents in Yunnan province where weather is … more suitable for elderly, and she also manages her organic tea farm there,” he had written months before. Now he added that she was trained in mechanical engineering and “helped us to expand the remote measurements” beyond mice to fish, pigs, elephants and newborn Chinese babies. (Qian did not respond to a request for comment.) The ethics board at Banna Biomedical Research Institute approved the measurements on infants, which were taken by video camera.
Tsien’s disclosure that his sister and mother had stakes in a company that co-owned his Chinese patents appeared to be at odds with another response he had given to the university. Its conflict-of-interest form, which Hess had ordered Tsien to fill out in 2019, asked whether any immediate family member was a full or partial owner of a business related to his “Institutional Responsibilities.” Tsien checked “no.”
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One of Tsien’s co-inventors contradicted his account. Fang Zhao said that Tsien not only knew about the patent applications but also initiated them. He “asked me to prepare the technique reports for him when I worked in his lab,” she wrote. She said that Tsien asked his sister to apply for the Chinese patents. As for Tsien’s Chinese name on the patents, Fang Zhao said that he always uses it in China.
She and Meng Li “have no idea that he has not reported these Chinese patents to Augusta University,” Fang Zhao wrote. “Joe told us this is normal academic cooperation activity which is allowed by Augusta University.”
Fang Zhao also described the Banna institute as a private organization run by Tsien, his sister and his mother. This raised questions about Tsien’s relationship to the Thousand Talents Program. Tsien had said that he declined the Thousand Talents funding and arranged for it to go to Banna instead. But if Banna was controlled by his family, it seemed possible that he or his family had benefited directly or indirectly from the money.
Chinese records and media coverage showed that the three Banna organizations were all established around the same time and were all connected to Tsien and his family. Dadu started in 2010 with about $700,000 in seed money. There was also the Banna Primate Model Animal Center, which opened in 2008 with about $1.5 million in capital, contrary to Tsien’s description of it as a 40-year-old organization. The primate center, which owned a 20% stake in Dadu, appeared to be a precursor to the Biomedical Research Institute, which started in 2010 with more than $2 million.
A lawsuit in China alleged that the Banna entities were tightly intertwined — and linked to Tsien. A construction company sued Dadu, the biomedical institute, Tsien (by his Chinese name, notably) and his sister for nonpayment of roughly $800,000 of a $2.2 million contract. According to the lawsuit, the personnel and finances of Dadu and the institute were commingled and Tsien was the “actual controller and investor.” Citing a lack of funds, the defendants had requested more time to settle their account, but they had still not paid in full. The case’s status or outcome was unclear because in 2019 a local judge moved it to another court, whose records were unavailable.
Tsien’s efforts to profit from the patents went beyond Banna. In December 2018, he and his sister proposed establishing a “Brain Science and Artificial Intelligence Research Center” in Yuxi, a city of 2.6 million people in Yunnan, about five hours’ drive from Xishuangbanna. The center’s products would include a remote drug screening device covered by one of the six Chinese patents. Notes from the meeting on the Yuxi government’s website identified Tsien, again by his Chinese name, as dean of the Banna Biomedical Research Institute and his sister as its vice president. The Yuxi government agreed to embark on the project, with Tsien’s sister as a deputy team leader.
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Tsien spun these new revelations as best he could. While acknowledging that he had not always told the full story, he continued to distance himself from the Banna companies and the Chinese patents that they co-owned.
For example, he said that Dadu “was established by a few of my relatives” but that he did not “provide the money.” His sister, he said, had worked for China Resources Group, a state-owned conglomerate, and then as an entrepreneur before managing the tea farm, and she had gotten rich enough to help found Dadu. “My family was poor when I was in high school or college,” he said. “Now everybody seems to be much better.”
The primate center’s origins did trace back to the early 1980s, he said, but the state government had planned to close it and develop the real estate. “There was this very chaotic moment. I wanted to continue the primate research.” The center was reborn with his Georgia Research Alliance grant and local government money. The government then expanded it into the biomedical institute, which he described as a nonprofit organization with both public and private funding. He had donated the Thousand Talents stipend for construction of new buildings, such as a conference hall and a cafeteria, and didn’t personally profit, he said.
He denied the construction company’s contention that Dadu and the institute commingled funds and that he controlled both entities. “They put my name in because they think I’m American, I have money.” The company hadn’t been fully paid because it had “jacked up the price,” but the court rejected the exorbitant sum, and the case was close to being settled.
Tsien acknowledged that the lawsuit and other documents in China, like the patents, referred to him by his Chinese name. “Everybody in China uses my Chinese name,” he said. “I stopped trying to correct them.”
He said he was aware that Meng Li and Fang Zhao wanted to apply for the patents. He had cautioned them that they had to abide by Augusta’s policies and that the work couldn’t be done in his lab, he said. “I told them, ‘You need to draw a line here.’” They followed his advice, he said. Once the Chinese patents came under scrutiny, Zhao and Li, as partners in Dadu, “may have unfortunately tried to shift blame,” Tsien said. Zhao did not respond to a request for comment.
Tsien maintained that he had no desire to commercialize the patents. Asked about the proposed Yuxi research center that would develop the drug screening invention, he sighed. “If that qualifies as my effort to commercialize, then yes, OK, I did try to commercialize,” he said. Although Yuxi was “a natural” location because drug addiction was rampant there, the center has not materialized, he said.
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Tsien lives with his younger son and his sister’s children in a tree-lined Shanghai neighborhood in the apartment that East China Normal provided for him almost 20 years ago. His younger son works at a product design company, and his niece works at a media production company. His nephew goes to a better middle school than those available in Yunnan, where Tsien’s sister, Yi Qian, lives. The apartment’s other occupants are two German shepherds named Max and Duke.
He hasn’t seen his wife or their young daughter for more than two years. Because he had only expected to be gone a month — he had bought a round-trip ticket — they stayed behind in Georgia. He said he talks with them daily by WeChat. “Sometimes, I play silly with my daughter, such as posing as an elephant wearing a cowboy hat.” He speaks a couple of times a week with his older son, a graduate student in computer science in the U.S.
His reluctance to come back jeopardized his lawsuit in federal district court in Augusta. The university contended that it should be able to take his deposition in person, though remote depositions have become more common in the COVID-19 era. A magistrate judge ruled on Nov. 12 that “evading arrest is not a legitimate basis for seeking relief” and that Tsien had to appear in person to be deposed.
Marooned in China, Tsien has had time to reflect on his rise and fall in the U.S.
“America is like a treasured rainforest in which reside all sorts of creatures,” he said. “One just needs to deal with a few mosquitoes and possibly snakes along the way to enjoy and appreciate its majestic beauty.”
Surprisingly, despite his many past affiliations with Chinese universities and institutes, Tsien is no longer working in higher education. “I did get many invitations to give seminars but tend to decline most because I prefer to draw a line between my previous academic life and current one, which gives a strange feeling that one may live twice,” he said.
Instead, he is chief scientist at an artificial intelligence startup in Shanghai, where he is building a self-driving car operated by an algorithm and hardware inspired by brain computation. By creating a smarter car, as he created a smarter mouse, he hopes to vindicate his Theory of Connectivity about the basis of human intelligence.
His departure from academia, though, may not be entirely by choice. One close friend said that Tsien, when he was riding high at Princeton, lorded his renown over Chinese researchers of lesser stature. Now the scientists who resented his condescension are in power at Chinese universities, and they have no desire to resuscitate Tsien’s career.
“He burned bridges in both countries,” his friend said. “To me, it’s a tragedy.”