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STANFORD, Calif. — It’s the one thing everyone knows. And it’s the last thing people want to talk about openly.

But if you step away from Stanford University’s public spaces — its spacious courtyards surrounded by sandstone buildings and bike paths flanked by palm trees — a subject that almost feels too big to talk about emerges at last. It comes up in the cloistered confines of laboratories, in small gatherings of students and faculty, and in the quiet corridors of research buildings home to 11 Nobel Prize-winning scientists.


Here it is. Stanford’s president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, is under investigation for alleged research misconduct after scientific-image experts and the university’s student newspaper raised concerns in November around papers co-authored by the renowned neuroscientist before he became president. As the list of flagged studies has grown to nearly a dozen papers, four of which are now preceded by notes from journal editors, so too has the unease of the university’s scientific community.

“Pretty much every Stanford student is aware of it to some extent,” said Grace Huckins, a neuroscience Ph.D. student. “It’s definitely in the public discussion on campus.”

The university’s board of trustees has created a special committee to investigate the allegations and has retained a former federal judge and the law firm Kirkland & Ellis to lead its search for answers. An outside panel of five leading scientists will also lend its expertise, including the former president of Princeton, a Nobel laureate, and several members of the National Academies. And while the scope of the investigation — and the timing for any decision — remain unclear, STAT has learned that the committee has spoken with at least two of Tessier-Lavigne’s former postdoctoral researchers, though three others said they had not been contacted. 

The committee’s findings will have major implications for one of the nation’s top research powerhouses but also more broadly, because of the underlying issues it raises about the conduct of elite science.

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