Nobody wants to win more than lab rats—grad students and postdocs thanklessly toiling away at experiments into the night, trying to make a name for themselves. And when a lot of people want something badly, some of them cheat.
A spectacularly gratuitous case came out in Nature this week: that of former University of Michigan postdoc Vipul Bhrigu. After being caught on hidden camera using ethanol to poison the cell cultures of grad student Heather Ames, Bhrigu was sentenced for malicious destruction of personal property. Most people take that particular misdemeanor rap for vandalizing a car. Bhrigu vandalized months of research.
Bhrigu has said on multiple occasions that he was compelled by “internal pressure” and had hoped to slow down Ames’s work. Speaking earlier this month, he was contrite. “It was a complete lack of moral judgement on my part,” he said. [Nature]
An investigation of Marc Hauser, a Harvard University psychology professor who studies primate behavior and animal cognition, came to a head on Friday with a letter from Harvard’s dean confirming eight instances of scientific misconduct.
The exact offenses are still unclear, but three papers have received or are receiving modifications. The papers include a 2002 Cognition article (retracted), a 2007 article in Proceedings of the Royal Society B (received an addendum), and a 2007 article in Science.
From Harvard Dean Michael Smith’s letter:
[T]he investigating committee found problems with respect to the three publications mentioned previously, and five other studies that either did not result in publications or where the problems were corrected prior to publication. While different issues were detected for the studies reviewed, overall, the experiments reported were designed and conducted, but there were problems involving data acquisition, data analysis, data retention, and the reporting of research methodologies and results. [Chronicle of Higher Education]
While Harvard has not been forthcoming with the details, one former research assistant provided the Chronicle of Higher Education with email exchanges between research assistants and Hauser, related to particular problems interpreting results from primate study.
Today the British medical journal The Lancet, which published the 1998 study by Andrew Wakefield implying autism was linked to vaccinations, fully retracted the study in the wake of increasing allegations of misconduct against the lead author.
The 1998 paper, based on a small sample of 12 children, implied a connection between an autism-like disorder and a triple vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella [AFP]. Despite the small sample size, and a commentary published by The Lancet encouraging caution in interpreting the results, the Wakefield paper became one of the chief sources cited by the modern anti-vaccination movement. His assertion caused one of the biggest medical rows in a generation and led to a big fall in the number of vaccinations, prompting a worrying rise in cases of measles [Reuters].
The South Korean stem cell scientist who falsified cloning data was convicted today of embezzlement and illegally buying human eggs. The Seoul Central District Court sentenced Hwang Woo-suk to two years in prison for embezzling research funds and illegally buying human eggs. However, it suspended the penalty, allowing him to stay free if he breaks no laws for three years [Washington Post]. The judge stated Hwang has shown remorse and said that despite his fraudulent research the scientist has made other genuine advancements in cloning.
In May 2005, Hwang published a paper in the journal Science, saying his team had extracted material from cloned human embryos that identically matched the DNA of 11 patients. It was claimed such a technique could be the key to providing personalized cures for diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s [BBC News]. The paper garnered worldwide attention, along with heightened suspicion, because cloning embryonic stem cells was thought to be impossible due to the complexities of human cells. Proving the critics right, an investigation later concluded that the data were intentionally fabricated. Hwang later confessed to obtaining eggs for the research from his female colleagues, a clear violation of research ethics guidelines. However, he maintained that he did not fake his research, and is still working on animal cloning at a local institute.
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80beats: Disgraced South Korean Cloning Scientist May Face Jail Time
The disgraced South Korean researcher whose breakthrough cloning research was exposed as a fraud in 2005 now faces up to four years in prison. Prosecutors asked for the four-year sentence in court today, where the researcher, Hwang Woo-suk, is standing trial for fraud, misusing $2.25 million in state funds, and violating bioethics laws by illegally buying human eggs for his research. “The people’s disappointment was very serious because their expectation for his stem cell research had been high,” an unidentified prosecutor told the courtroom. He said Hwang tarnished South Korea’s image abroad…. Hwang pleaded for leniency, saying if the court forgives him he is ready to “pour the last of my passion” into research [AP].
Hwang became a national hero to South Korea in 2004, when he claimed to have cloned human embryonic stem cells, a feat that was thought to be impossible because of the complexities of human cells. Embryonic stem cells are of great interest to medical researchers because they can develop into any kind of adult cell, and could theoretically be used to replace malfunctioning cells that cause disease. A year later, Hwang said the team created human embryonic stem cells genetically matched to specific patients — a purported breakthrough that promised a way to withstand rejection by a patient’s immune system [AP].
A researcher who stirred up controversy when he claimed to have carried out nuclear fusion in a table-top experiment has been found guilty of scientific misconduct by a panel at Purdue University. Many scientists have been eager to develop nuclear fusion — the process that powers the sun — as an unlimited source of clean energy and an alternative to fossil fuels. But scientists have struggled to unlock the secrets of fusion energy [Reuters].
In 2002, the researcher, Rusi P. Taleyarkhan, announced that he had carried out fusion at room temperature and using relatively cheap materials, and his results were trumpeted on the cover of the prestigious journal Science. The article was published over the vehement objections of several reviewers and was heavily criticized by other physicists [Los Angeles Times]. Now, the Purdue panel’s findings of scientific misconduct cast further doubts on the validity of Taleyarkhan’s experiments.