YaleNews

A School of Medicine professor has been suspended amid a Department of Justice investigation that may be related to the China Initiative. The University has pledged to vigorously advocate on the professor’s behalf.

A March 9 letter addressed to University President Peter Salovey, and signed by nearly 100 Yale faculty members, claimed that the University suspended Haifan Lin, professor of cell biology and director of Yale’s Stem Cell Center, without apparent due process. Lin has been placed on involuntary administrative leave and “abruptly cut off” from his research group, the letter alleged, without legal charges or clear evidence of misconduct. The letter raised questions about whether Lin is under investigation by a governmental agency, emphasized a lack of known facts regarding why actions were taken against Lin and called the developments “disturbing on many levels.” The letter also places Lin’s case against the backdrop of the China Initiative, a Department of Justice anti-espionage effort that critics say harms research and unfairly targets scientists of Chinese descent.

“In our view, without due process and clear evidence of misconduct, Yale’s administrative action in the case of Prof. Lin appears to suggest that Yale’s own faculty members are guilty until proven innocent; and if so, everyone will be vulnerable,” the letter, obtained by the News, reads.

In response to the letter, University Provost Scott Strobel and School of Medicine Dean Nancy Brown wrote to faculty signatories early Wednesday morning. Their response describes a March 2019 inquiry from the National Institutes of Health regarding “the sufficiency of reporting of outside support” by several faculty funded by NIH grants. The University responded to the questioning with information provided by faculty including Lin. NIH subsequently questioned whether the information was accurate, and the University took the position that it was, the letter reads.

After continued discussions, in July 2020, the University was notified that the Department of Justice had opened a criminal investigation into the matter, and complied with the DOJ’s subpoena. In March 2021, the DOJ requested to speak with Lin, and the University retained separate counsel to represent him.

In January 2022, the NIH provided Yale with information that appeared inconsistent with the information that Lin had provided and that the University had based its response on, prompting the University to conduct its own internal investigation. Lin has been placed on paid administrative leave, and the investigation is ongoing. The University has “acted assertively to support Professor Lin” throughout the process, the response states. 

The response emphasizes that no judgments have been made so far, and maintains that the University has followed due process throughout the investigation and will continue to do so.

It is unclear whether the DOJ’s actions fall under the umbrella of the China Initiative, which the agency recently said is being overhauled. Strobel and Brown’s response statement does not reference the China Initiative. An investigation by the M.I.T. Technology Review found that the DOJ does not have an official definition under which it labels China Initiative cases. The same investigation also found that the DOJ has increasingly focused on cases of “research integrity”, typically failure to fully disclose all ties to Chinese institutions. The majority of research integrity cases under the China Initiative have fallen apart, and defense attorneys and other observers criticize the federal government’s rules regarding disclosure as unclear. 

Strobel and Brown do note that they are “acutely aware of the pain, fear, and stress” that Asian and Asian American scientists have experienced in “recent years”. 

“While it happens rarely, when a faculty member is subjected to an investigation, it is distressing to the faculty member and to those who support and care about our colleague’s well-being and productivity,” they wrote. “We are keenly aware of these challenges. We greatly appreciate your care and concern for our colleague. It is a testament to the extraordinary spirit of collegiality and collaboration that is a hallmark of our campus community.”

Lin did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Members of Lin’s direct research group, as well as the letter’s organizers, also did not respond to requests for comment. 

Yale Vice President of Communications Nate Nickerson wrote to the News that the University is “committed” to principles of academic freedom and follows all policies in the Faculty Handbook. 

The original letter, which has not been made public, circulated among individual faculty members, primarily in the School of Medicine and some science and engineering departments in the Faculty of Arts & Sciences.

“I am concerned that my colleague Haifan Lin is not being given appropriate due process,” Valerie Horsley, the chair of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences Senate who is associated with the Stem Cell Center and one of the letter’s signatories, wrote in an email to the News. “It is not clear to me why he is on leave, especially if he has not been charged with a crime or has gone against a University policy. His leadership in Yale’s Stem Cell Center and in his own laboratory have inspired and motivated my own work and I want to make sure that we retain this important leader at our Institution.”

Lin, whose research examines the self-renewing mechanism of stem cells, came to Yale in 2006 and established the Stem Cell Center, an organization with over 100 member labs that is widely recognized as one of the country’s most prominent centers for such research. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and was recently elected as president of the International Society of Stem Cell Research. Lin is also currently an adjunct dean at ShanghaiTech University. 

Six professors who signed the letter declined to be interviewed, citing a lack of substantiated information about Lin’s circumstances. Five others spoke to the News in support of Lin but also emphasized that they did not personally know Lin. Three professors who have worked with Lin in the past said they have not had contact with him since the apparent suspension, but heard from colleagues that Lin was barred from his lab and instructed not to contact his graduate researchers. An interim director of the Stem Cell Center has been appointed, and the chair of Lin’s department has pledged to support any affected students in Lin’s program, which will be supported by bridge funding from YSM. 

Many of Lin’s colleagues praised both his leadership skills and advanced contributions to the field of cell biology. Daniel Colón-Ramos, a professor of neuroscience, as well as several other professors of cell biology remarked that Lin’s contributions to the field involve stem cell division in fruit flies and other organisms, and would not appear to be of concern to federal inquiries on national security.

Still, Lin’s suspension comes on the heels of a sensitive period of time for scientific research, particularly for scientists of Chinese descent. Echoing the faculty letter, several professors invoked a high-profile China Initiative case brought against Gang Chen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Chen was arrested in January 2021, accused of concealing ties to the Chinese government and barred from campus and his research projects. Chene was ultimately cleared on all charges a year later, but by then his research had stalled and his postdoctoral researchers had been transferred to other groups. 

As many across the University described the “chilling” effects that the China Initiative has had on scientific inquiry, nearly 200 faculty members — including Lin — signed onto an open letter to the Justice Department, calling for the Initiative’s end in January. The Department of Justice announced changes to the initiative, including dropping its name, in late February. 

The original letter emphasized that faculty did not know  whether Lin’s suspension mirrors Chen’s case, but called on the University to protect Lin if he is under investigation by a governmental agency, noting M.I.T’s consistent legal support for Chen throughout his case. Ultimately, the letter calls on University administrators to take three specific steps: reinstate Lin according to all guidelines in the Faculty Handbook, provide greater transparency regarding policies on suspended faculty and protect professors from undue political pressure and investigations from governmental agencies.

“For many of us, it is the time to heal the wounds, to recover from the great damage done to our academic life, to refocus on striving for academic excellence, and to regain faith in the ideals of freedom, equality, and fairness,” the letter states. Lin’s apparent punishment, it continues, will “have strong chilling effects and propagate a new wave of anxiety among Yale faculty.”

Such anxiety will rise even if Lin’s suspension has no connection to the China Initiative, Colón-Ramos said, because researchers may be less inclined to collaborate with scientists of Chinese descent and Chinese universities amid the uncertainty, damaging the overall research environment. 

“He’s one of the most brilliant scientists I know, a person of great integrity with an unimpeachable scientific record of achievements,” Colón-Ramos said. “It would be completely consistent with what I know about [Lin] that they would find absolutely nothing, but in the meantime, they will have really hurt his lab, and the postdocs, graduate students, junior faculty that are seeing what’s happening,” 

The China Initiative was announced in 2018. 

Update, March 16: This article has been updated to include information from the University’s response to the signatories.

ISAAC YU
Isaac Yu was the News' managing editor. He was formerly the faculty and academics reporter, laid out the Yale Daily News Magazine and the front page of the weekly print edition, and covered transportation and urban planning in New Haven. Isaac was also the News' inaugural Audience editor, overseeing the News' Twitter, Facebook, SEO and Instagram teams. He was also the leader of the News' Asian American and low-income affinity groups. Hailing from Garland, Texas, he is a Berkeley College junior majoring in American Studies.