Nobel Laureate and Harvard, Princeton leaders to investigate Tessier-Lavigne’s work

Jan. 18, 2023, 12:42 a.m.

A former Harvard provost, a Nobel laureate and a former Princeton president are among the scientists who have been tasked with investigating allegations of scientific misconduct in research papers co-authored by Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne. A spokesperson for the committee confirmed that Tessier-Lavigne has not been asked to step aside from his role as President during the investigation, which has continued to receive criticism from prominent scientists and Stanford insiders.

The Daily first reported years of allegations in an article last November, uncovering accusations of serious image manipulation in several papers co-authored by the University president across two decades and four institutions of his influential career. The University, which responded to questions sent to Tessier-Lavigne, wrote that Tessier-Lavigne had been informed of the issues in 2015 and attempted to correct them. They also claimed the alleged manipulation had no bearing on the findings of the papers, an assertion that has been repeatedly refuted by biologists and even the journal Science. Less than a day later, the Board of Trustees announced an investigation.

The investigation, which will be funded by the University, has no budget cap and no projected timeline, according to the spokesperson for the special committee. The Friday announcement contained the names of the five scientists entrusted with investigating Tessier-Lavigne’s research.

Randy Schekman won the Nobel prize in 2013 for his work in cell biology and has also served as a journal editor; Shirley Tilghman served as Princeton’s 19th president from 2001 to 2013 – the second female president in Ivy League history – and was named one of the 50 most important people in science for her work in cell biology and Steven Hyman served as the provost of Harvard from 2001 to 2011, as well as a journal editor from 2003-2017. They are joined by Hollis Cline, the chair of Scripps’ Department of Neuroscience, and Kafui Dzirasa, a Duke professor.

The high-profile biologists of various specialties will present their findings to Mark Filip, the former deputy attorney general leading the investigation.

Filip will then present a report to the special committee composed of four members of the board of trustees, who will then present their conclusions to the full board before an update is released to the broader community.

Elisabeth Bik, the research misconduct investigator who has uncovered several of the alleged image manipulations in papers co-authored by the University president after she was approached by The Daily last fall, said it was “unfortunate” the investigation did not have a projected timeline.

“I hope the investigation will not take years to resolve, and will not be kept confidential, as we have seen with other universities,” she wrote. The spokesperson for the committee would not confirm that the report ultimately compiled by the scientists and Filip would be made public, writing that responsibility for communicating the findings of the investigation would rest with the full Board of Trustees.

Still, the addition of renowned scientists to the investigation may increase the legitimacy of a process that has faced several stumbles getting off the ground.

According to the special committee’s spokesperson, the scientists were all thoroughly interviewed by Filip to determine impartiality and rule out conflicts of interest. This due diligence is especially important according to Bik, who has been concerned that the investigation into Tessier-Lavigne’s work is being led by his colleagues and friends. One of the trustees on the special committee, Felix Baker, stepped aside after it was revealed he maintained an $18 million position in Tessier-Lavigne’s biotechnology company Denali Therapeutics. The University and its Board of Trustees have not commented on why Baker was selected and if he disclosed his financial connections to Tessier-Lavigne. (Baker bears no relation to the author of this article.)

“I don’t understand why we haven’t heard anything from the administration or board about the conflict of interest,” said one School of Medicine professor, who requested anonymity to speak freely about a sensitive topic. “I don’t understand why the Board of Trustees member agreed to be on the committee with a big financial conflict. Most importantly I don’t understand why [Tessier-Lavigne] did not object to having this board member be on the committee. There was silence about this until The Daily reported it. From the outside this doesn’t look good.”

The committee has also faced criticism for its slow progress by Stanford scientists and outside academics from peer institutions. Last month, Science decided to affix Editorial Expressions of Concern to two papers on which Tessier-Lavigne was the senior author. The committee had not yet reached out to Science when the expressions of concern were issued, weeks after the investigation began.

Holden Thorp, the journal’s editor-in-chief, explained that Science opted to issue the expressions of concern, which serve as placeholders before an ultimate conclusion is reached, rather than immediately issue a correction or retraction. “The last thing we want to do is take action on this paper and then the investigation turns up something else,” he said.

And the scientists may indeed have more to turn up. The spokesperson for the special committee evaded questions about whether the committee was aware of concerns not yet publicly raised (The Daily is aware that some such concerns exist) and wrote that the scientists were free to examine any issues they found appropriate.

Some experts have voiced their concerns about the lack of transparency around the review process. Nancy Olivieri, a world-renowned scientific whistleblower, wrote in an email to The Daily that she believed the latest update from the committee was “all academic jargon for ‘we are still pretending to investigate.’”

One associate director in Stanford’s administration, who requested anonymity due to fear of professional repercussions, wrote that “In speaking with numerous academics and alumni, nearly everyone is surprised that the Stanford president has not stepped down or at least stepped aside from his duties while the investigation is taking place. Many have pointed to the board who appear to be protecting the individual rather than the institution.”

Still, some urge caution. An op-ed published in The Daily last month authored by several Stanford scientists warned against premature conclusions, following calls by other Stanford scientists for Tessier-Lavigne to step down. The scientists wrote that they felt an investigation was justified and that the community should wait to hear its findings, pointing out that Tessier-Lavigne has performed some exceptionally important science. “These accomplishments do not guarantee that every paper he has authored is free of errors,” wrote the authors, “but collectively they demonstrate a high level of scientific rigor and reproducibility.”

The content of the op-ed was not supported by all members of the Stanford scientific community. One colleague of the authors and a School of Medicine professor, who requested anonymity to speak freely about coworkers, wrote that the piece contained “arrogance of scientific seniority.”

The professor continued, “Should we be concluding from their statement that scientific seniority and stardom indemnify one from a standard of scrutiny, and an expectation of honesty and rigor, that apply to those farther down the ‘food chain’ of science? (…) I find that a sad and disturbing aspect of their statement, and one that is very hard to ignore.”

Marc Tessier-Lavigne and his lawyer have not responded to interview requests.

Do you have a tip? Have you worked in Tessier-Lavigne’s lab? Reach out to the author at [email protected].

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Shirley Tilghman’s last name. The Daily regrets this error.

Theo Baker is the Vol. 263 Spotlight Investigations Editor. A frosh from Washington, D.C., he is the youngest ever recipient of a George Polk Award. Contact [email protected] for encrypted email. Find him on Twitter @tab_delete.

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