Stanford ends year with leadership uncertainty

June 15, 2023, 8:23 a.m.

Stanford made history in 2022 when it publicly launched an investigation into its own president over allegations of research impropriety. Now, eight months after the investigation began, uncertainty over its outcome continues to dog one of America’s premier research institutions, leaving the school with questions over its leader and unable to fill the position of provost until the investigation concludes.

Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne has adamantly denied any wrongdoing in response to the allegations, which range in severity from negligence to an alleged coverup of fabricated Alzheimer’s research, and sought to prevent the publication of articles detailing the recollections of those involved. Still, the investigation has increasingly taken center stage for the prominent neuroscientist who began the year by opening the University’s first new school in 70 years, the Doerr School of Sustainability.

The imbroglio began on PubPeer, an online scientific forum, seven years ago, when scientists posting under pseudonyms identified what are now widely believed to be doctored images in a handful of publications co-authored by Tessier-Lavigne. Tessier-Lavigne became head of Stanford in 2016, but the allegations stayed mostly underground, confined to conversations in highly academic corners of the internet dedicated to image manipulation.

At that time, Tessier-Lavigne did not issue a public response. According to Holden Thorp, Science’s editor in chief, Tessier-Lavigne submitted corrections to Science which were not published “due to an error” on the part of the journal, though Thorp also told The Daily that Tessier-Lavigne did not follow up in the seven years between when the corrections were supposed to be published and when the allegations resurfaced. (The Daily requested copies of the original corrections; neither Science nor Tessier-Lavigne would provide them.)

The conversation was pushed to the mainstream in late November when The Daily published an investigation into four papers for which Tessier-Lavigne served as co-author or senior author. Multiple forensic image analysts concluded the papers contained images which had been photoshopped or altered — some panels in studies appeared to have been designed to deliberately mislead, according to Elisabeth Bik, a widely respected research misconduct investigator whom The New Yorker called “Biology’s image detective” and who analyzed the papers at the request of The Daily.

Within a day, the University’s Board of Trustees opened an investigation. In the months since, it has ballooned.

Tessier-Lavigne’s initial defense — delivered by the University’s own communications team — was to claim that he had no involvement in the production of the manipulated images and that the alteration did “not have any bearing on the data or the results reported in these papers.” But scientists and journals alike cast doubt on that statement, with Science, Cell, Nature and the European Molecular Biology Organization Journal issuing statements of concern over the validity of the papers in light of the identified issues. (Several of the papers remain up in the air. One of them was recently issued a lengthy correction and “retraction is absolutely on the table” for others, according to Thorp.)

In addition, scientists at Stanford pointed out that the University’s own research policy handbook states “defense of minimal participation…is entirely inapplicable when one is coauthor of the disputed work.” Tessier-Lavigne has not responded to multiple questions about this policy and Aidan Ryan, an Edelman senior vice president and spokesperson for the committee investigating Tessier-Lavigne, declined to say whether the University president would be held to the same standard as other Stanford scientists.

The question of Tessier-Lavigne’s treatment by his institution has been a thorny one for the special committee, which was announced in a statement from board chair Jerry Yang that also praised Tessier-Lavigne’s “integrity and honor.” In early December, The Daily reported that Felix Baker, one of the trustees appointed to lead the investigation, maintained an $18 million stake in a pharmaceutical company co-founded and bankrolled by Tessier-Lavigne. The trustee stepped away from the investigation after The Daily reported his financial interest, but criticism was nevertheless fierce, with several well-known scientists and scientific observers questioning the credibility of the inquiry.

While there were already Stanford professors and outside scientists calling for Tessier-Lavigne to step down, pressure ratcheted up after a Feb. 17 Daily article in which four senior Genentech scientists and executives alleged that Tessier-Lavigne actively hid fabrication in his Alzheimer’s research. The paper in question, published in Nature in 2009, was once thought Nobel-worthy and many in the field hoped it would lead to a treatment for the deadly disease.

Tessier-Lavigne denied the charges vehemently, sending a letter to all faculty and staff entitled “False allegations in the Stanford Daily.” Less than a week later, the story was independently corroborated to the special committee in private correspondence obtained by The Daily.

Genentech has denied an “investigation of fraud, fabrication, or other misconduct,” but confirmed the paper received an internal review that led to the cancellation of further research, a fact that was not public before The Daily’s reporting. It also acknowledged that the paper seemed to contain multiple image manipulations and that at least one senior leader within the company had urged that the paper be retracted, an action Tessier-Lavigne did not take.

Notably, the company contradicted Tessier-Lavigne’s depiction of events by saying “senior leaders at Genentech including Dr. Tessier-Lavigne knew” that the central finding of the paper “could not be reliably reproduced or confirmed” before the study was published. Tessier-Lavigne and his lawyers had claimed that “the data were reproducible” in multiple public statements. (Tessier-Lavigne has not responded to multiple questions about this discrepancy.)

Genentech also disclosed an additional case of apparent research misconduct in which Tessier-Lavigne submitted a manuscript that, after a complaint was filed with the company, was discovered to have contained fraudulent results and withdrawn while the postdoc who allegedly committed the misconduct was dismissed. (Tessier-Lavigne did not respond to several questions about this incident though he did say in a public statement that he “was the one who referred the matter to the Genentech legal department.” Genentech has not confirmed Tessier-Lavigne’s assertion nor provided information about who raised concerns over the research in the first place.)

Still, the biotech giant, which acknowledged “there are other documents or evidence that the diligence team was unable to find or that no longer exist [and] interviewees may not have complete recollections of events occurring so long ago,” reported that “none of the current or former employees who were interviewed reported observing or knowing of any fraud, fabrication, or other intentional wrongdoing in the research leading to and reported in the 2009 Nature paper.”

But at least one person interviewed by Genentech in connection with its review told the company that the research had been falsified, the person told The Daily. This high-level executive requested anonymity due to fear of retribution. Genentech, which had called the research “groundbreaking basic research about an entirely new way of looking at the cause of Alzheimer’s disease” in its 2009 annual letter to shareholders despite apparently already knowing its central findings were unreliable, chalked the executive’s recollection up to “speculation.”

Tessier-Lavigne has claimed Genentech’s statements and the statement of his friend and former Genentech executive Richard Scheller that he does “not recall” any fraud “categorically refute” the allegations and demanded retraction of The Daily’s reporting through his lawyers. He has also urged the community to wait for the results of the University’s investigation which he claims will fully clear him.

Despite Tessier-Lavigne’s plea for a stay of judgment, some faculty, students and alumni say they have irrevocably lost confidence in his leadership. One major Stanford donor told The Daily that “it is not even clear Tessier-Lavigne is leading.” A senior Stanford scientist called the doctored images alone “laughably overtly problematic.” (An informal poll on the social media app Fizz that was accessible only by those with a email showed that more than two-thirds of the 1,088 respondents “would not believe it if the board” exonerated Tessier-Lavigne.)

Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, many would agree that its weight has created a trying period for the University. In a public statement last fall, Tessier-Lavigne said he “regret[ted] the impact these events are having on the university,” though he has vigorously denied that the investigation has impacted his ability to lead.

Tessier-Lavigne has avoided answering questions about the allegations on several occasions, declining each of The Daily’s dozen-plus interview requests and providing misleading or inaccurate responses to some of its written questions.

He has also deferred some of the responsibilities of his position. Earlier this spring, The Daily reported that Tessier-Lavigne was removed from a major donor event “in the wake of” the allegations, according to an email sent by Stanford’s own fundraising office. Tessier-Lavigne has also said that he will not pick a successor to Provost Persis Drell — who, like Dean of Research Kam Moler, stepped down in the months after allegations were first raised for what she said were unrelated reasons — until the investigation concludes.

Thus the University ends its year with uncertainty hanging over both of its top leadership positions, a highly uncomfortable position for an institution that recently approved an $8.9 billion annual budget — larger than 11 U.S. states.

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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