Scientist still getting federal funds despite misconduct finding

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Canwest News Service –May 19, 2008

A Canadian academic continues to receive research money from Ottawa almost two years after top government advisers recommended the scientist be cut off and banned from receiving another penny because of misconduct, federal documents say.

The scientist, who was found to have engaged in “holus-bolus recycling” of old research and who had also faced allegations of data falsification and plagiarism, continues to receive between $20,000 and $30,000 a year from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the country’s largest research council.

The council’s integrity committee concluded in 2006 that there was “sufficient evidence of misconduct” to warrant “severe sanctions” against the scientist and an indefinite ban on funding his work, say documents obtained by Canwest News Service under access-to-information legislation.

In a second case, also described in the documents released by NSERC, another scientist engaged in "gross misconduct" and deliberate fabrication of research data. The council eventually banned this scientist from receiving future federal funding, but the decision came four years after the fraud was first reported because the university failed to disclose it.

The cases show how haphazard and ineffective Canada’s system for handling misconduct is, say critics, who have renewed calls for an independent research integrity agency to investigate misconduct cases, and inform the public when fraud occurs.

“These people need to be publicly admonished,” Dr. Paul Hebert, editor-in-chief of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, says of researchers found to be faking data and misusing research money.

Hebert says the Conservative government, which he notes came to office promising “accountability,” has shown little interest in the issue of misconduct in the research community, which receives billions of tax dollars.

In the case of the academic who fabricated data, a technician notified university officials in 2002 alleging the researcher had been falsifying data since 1993.

The university investigated, concluded there had been “gross misconduct” and gave the researcher a one-year suspension. It then signed an agreement in 2003 with the researcher to keep the details secret. Under federal rules, universities are supposed to investigate allegations and report to granting councils if researchers receiving federal funds engage in misconduct.

A financial bookkeeping note alerted NSERC officials to the case in 2005.

The council asked the university for the relevant documents. The university initially refused saying the documents were “confidential.” Council officials told the university it had an obligation to report findings of misconduct to NSERC. In early 2006 the university forwarded documents detailing how the academic had engaged in several instances of “deliberate falsification of research data."

He had even asked his technician and graduate student to fill in and sign data sheets containing fabricated results. The researcher denied any wrongdoing, but the university’s security system provided “irrefutable” evidence that no one was in the laboratory at times the researcher reported data had been collected and recorded.

University investigators say that along with fabricating data, the researcher “recklessly” flouted the rules in handling samples in ways that had the potential for “disastrous consequences.” Details on what the scientist was testing have been blacked out in the documents released, and NSERC will not divulge details. The documents say the academic was in “a clear conflict of interest” and stood to financially benefit from the research.

NSERC’s integrity committee reviewed the case. And in June 2006 — four years after the technician came forward with the complaint to the university — the council banned the scientist indefinitely from receiving future research grants.

Dore Dunne, NSERC’s public affairs manager, says the researcher received about $200,000 in research grants since 1993. The council will not identify the scientist, or say where he is now working. Dunne says NSERC "is not aware” if the falsified reports have been retracted, saying that is up to the university. It will not name the university involved.

The council also will not release details on the case of the other researcher, who Dunne says has received close to $400,000 in grants since 1996 and continues to receive a research grant worth between $20,000 an $30,000 a year despite recommendations in 2006 that the scientist be cut off.

This academic was churning out so many research publications that some of his colleagues grew suspicious. They uncovered several studies and reports in which the scientist recycled old data and information, some of it published seven years earlier. Titles, tables and references were altered, and graduate students, other professors and researchers are listed as co-authors of the recycled material, say the documents.

Two professors went to university officials with allegations the researcher had engaged in “bogus authorship,” repeat publication of identical papers, plagiarism, as well as falsification of data.

When they did not hear back from the university, the professors independently approached NSERC in 2005, and provided officials with documents to support their allegations.

NSERC raised the issue with the university, which responded that it had investigated and concluded there was “no evidence” of data falsification or plagiarism. The university did find a problem with “liberal reuse of published materials and data in multiple publications.” University officials discussed the issue with the researcher who had made “some errors” and agreed to mend his ways.

Council officials felt the university’s “remedial action” was “rather minor in light of the many breaches of publication practices,” the documents say.

NSERC asked its committee on professional scientific integrity, made up of researchers from several universities, to review the relevant documents, including the university’s report on the case. It refers to a long series of the researcher’s publications where there “appears to be holus-bolus recycling, with only minor cosmetic alterations, of material published earlier.”

“The scale of this activity is remarkable,” says the university report. It notes three research papers over a five-year period ranged from “strikingly similar to identical. The conclusions are identical, even the grammatical error in Conclusion (sic) survives unchallenged in all three versions.” But the university investigators concluded there was no evidence of data falsification or plagiarism, and described the reason for the “resurrection” and republication of old data as “a mystery.”

NSERC’s integrity committee recommended the council reprimand the university for conducting an investigation that “was found to lack thoroughness.” It also recommended the researcher’s grants be cut off, saying there was “sufficient evidence of misconduct” to warrant “severe sanctions.”

NSERC sent letters to both the university and researcher on June 27, 2006, informing them of the decision to terminate the researcher’s three-year grant effective March 31, 2007, and ban him from receiving future funding.

A week later, the scientist’s lawyer sent back with a letter saying: “A more egregious violation of our client’s rights and of due process can hardly be imagined.” The lawyer requested the documents the NSERC committee used to make its decision, and threatened to take the council to court.

NSERC’s lawyers said the council could not meet the request for documents without disclosing “third-party references,” including the names of the whistle-blowing professors. The lawyers advised this would violate the federal Privacy Act. On July 28, 2006, Nigel Lloyd, NSERC’s executive vice president, informed the researcher’s lawyer “no sanctions will be imposed on your client by NSERC.”

NSERC did not proceed with sanctions against the scientist for legal reasons, says Dunne, the council’s public affairs manager. “The file is closed,” says Dunne.

She says there is to be no follow-up or reinvestigation because “NSERC cannot second guess decisions undertaken by the university."

As for the fate of the multiple publications, she said NSERC “is not aware of any retractions.”

Hebert says it is crucial that fabricated research be retracted. “The public record needs to be corrected,” he says, noting that fake results can lead other researchers up blind alleys, waste time and money, and have the potential for public harm.

Trudo Lemmens, a research ethics specialist at the University of Toronto, says the cases highlight the need for an open, accountable system. “One with some regulatory rigour,” says Lemmens.

Original article on Canada.com website