Science and Fraud

Published: July 22, 2014

By Jim Lichtman
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This caught my attention on several levels: 1) Having known a few researchers, I always had a high opinion for the level of integrity. They are focused on results, yes, but the right results; 2) Once again we have another example where money – a lot of money – is available, so is the possibility of fraud; 3) The shocking fact that many of the researchers found guilty of fraudcontinue to work; and 4) All of us need to avail ourselves of the double checking facts, no matter the science or the story.

In an opinion piece that appeared in The New York Times (July 11), by Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, “Dong-Pyou Han needed impressive lab results to help his team at Iowa State University move forward with its work on an AIDS vaccine — and to continue receiving millions of dollars in federal grants. So Dr. Han did what many scientists are probably tempted to do, but don’t: He faked the tests, spiking rabbit blood with human proteins to make it appear that the animals were responding to the vaccine to fight H.I.V.

“The reason you’re reading about this story, and not about the glowing success of the therapy, is that Dr. Han was caught. In October, following an investigation, he resigned in disgrace. In December, the Office of Research Integrity, part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, announced that he had agreed to a three-year ban on federal funding. Last month, federal authorities arrested Dr. Han and charged him with four felony counts of making false statements. He has pleaded not guilty and is free on bail.

“Even though research misconduct is far from rare, Dr. Han’s case was unusual in that he had to resign. Criminal charges against scientists who commit fraud are even more uncommon. In fact, according to a study published last year, ‘most investigators who engage in wrongdoing, even serious wrongdoing, continue to conduct research at their institutions.’ ”

Bad news, right?

“As part of our reporting, we’ve written about multiple academic researchers who have been found guilty of misconduct and then have gone on to work at pharmaceutical giants. Unusual, too, is the fact that Iowa State has agreed to reimburse the government about $500,000 to cover several years of Dr. Han’s salary and that the National Institutes of Health has decided to withhold another $1.4 million that it had promised the university as part of the grant.”

That’s the good news, but…”don’t applaud yet, taxpayers: The N.I.H. isn’t doing anything about the rest of the $10 million granted to Dr. Han’s boss, Michael Cho, after the two scientists announced the apparently exciting results now known to be fraudulent.

“The vast majority of cases, in fact, funding is not repaid. …

“But these are the rare cases. And Dr. Han may have remained one of the hundreds of fraudster scientists who faced little punishment if it weren’t for the attention of a senator. The three-year ban, Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, told the Office of Research Integrity in a Feb. 10 letter, ‘seems like a very light penalty for a doctor who purposely tampered with a research trial and directly caused millions of taxpayer dollars to be wasted on fraudulent studies.’ (In fact, just two of the 11 cases reported by the O.R.I. last year led to outright bans. Most only required supervision by a scientist in good standing with research overseers.)

“Senator Grassley is correct: The office needs teeth, and the people who helped pull them, not surprisingly, were scientists. The office never recovered from its case against Thereza Imanishi-Kari, a Tufts University researcher accused of fraud in her work with a Nobel laureate, the biologist David Baltimore. In 1991, investigators at the O.R.I. — then called the Office of Scientific Integrity — found Dr. Imanishi-Kari guilty of misconduct and lying to cover up her actions, but in 1996 they were overruled by panelists for its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, who concluded that the office had failed to prove its case.

“Scientists used the Imanishi-Kari case as an example of government oversight run amok. But the O.R.I.’s presence as a deterrent, and oversight, does far more good than harm. Congress should give it even more needed authority. A good starting point would be to grant the office the right to issue administrative subpoenas like those its sister agency, the National Science Foundation, can use to gain access to university documents. Without subpoena power, the O.R.I. is able to see only what institutions want to share. Congress should also help by apportioning more funding to the office, whose budget is currently about $8.6 million, down from $9.1 million in 2010.”

Looking deeper into the problem, Michael Schneider, “a lawyer who represents scientists accused of research misconduct,” writes in a Letter to the Editor (July 17):

“Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky are right to bemoan the cost to taxpayers of research misconduct. But they don’t mention that the initial fact-finding process used by many universities and medical schools — and permitted by federal regulations — is deeply flawed. This is so for at least four reasons.

“First, federal regulations do not guarantee the accused access to the evidence against her until the very end of the process, when it is often too late to respond meaningfully.

“Second, universities and medical schools often refuse to consult with qualified, outside experts.

“Third, while researchers cannot be prevented from consulting with a lawyer, many institutions prohibit counsel’s presence at critical interviews and hearings.

“Fourth, the preponderance-of-the-evidence standard is very low and permits institutions to make adverse findings based on the mere existence of unexplained anomalies in published images or data, even though anomalies find their way into the best-researched experiments and publications.

“And once such findings have been made and publicized, blogs and websites, like that curated by Mr. Marcus and Mr. Oransky, proliferate the findings, whether accurate or not, resulting in damaged reputations that can be impossible to repair.

“Given the high stakes at issue for science, taxpayers and the accused, federal regulations should guarantee fairer and more accurate fact-finding procedures.”

Fair enough, but Dr. Han’s case he has admitted to the fraud.

Let’s hope Senator Grassley is successful in implementing more oversight into the research process and more penalties for fraud.

We should not, however, consider all scientists to be suspect, any more than all used car salesmen are thieves.


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