Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Science retracting paper by chemists cut off from NSF funding

with 4 comments

Bruce Eaton

Bruce Eaton

feldheim

Daniel Feldheim

The National Science Foundation will no longer fund a pair of chemists who “recklessly falsified data,” according to a report from the NSF’s Office of Inspector General, unless they “take specific actions to address issues” in a 2004 Science paper.

That paper is going to be retracted as soon as possible, Science told us. The co-authors that the NSF reprimanded are Bruce Eaton and Dan Feldheim, now at the University of Colorado at Boulder; they have been under scrutiny since 2008, when an investigation at North Carolina State University, their former employer, found that the Science paper contained falsified data.

The paper, “RNA-Mediated Metal-Metal Bond Formation in the Synthesis of Hexagonal Palladium Nanoparticles,” has been cited 138 times.

Science Editor in Chief  Marcia McNutt told us today that a retraction is in the works:

 We are checking to see how soon we can get it published.

We asked McNutt if the authors had agreed to the retraction:

We have not yet heard. TBD.

In the NSF-funded paper, the researchers used RNA to create crystals of the industrially useful metal, palladium.

The specific actions NSF is requesting of the authors are blacked out, part of a letter of reprimand to the researchers dated May 14th, 2015. That was released online along with a 2013 report from the Office of Inspector General, and brought to light today by Joseph Neff at The News & Observer.

According to the OIG report:

We investigated an allegation of falsification in research connected with NSF proposals. We concluded, based on a preponderance of the evidence, that the Subjects recklessly falsified research data, and that this act was a significant departure from accepted practices. We recommended NSF take the following actions: make a finding of research misconduct, and send to each of the Subjects a letter of reprimand; require that the Subjects contact the journal in which the falsified data appeared to make a correction; require certifications and assurances for three years; bar the Subjects from serving as a peer reviewer, advisor, or consultant for NSF for three years; and require the Subjects to complete a responsible conduct of research training program.

NSF declined to make a finding of research misconduct. However, NSF concluded that the Subjects’ actions were a significant departure from standard research practices. Accordingly, NSF issued a letter of reprimand, and declared the Subjects ineligible for future NSF funding. NSF would reinstate the Subjects’ eligibility if the Subjects take specific actions to address issues in the scientific publication containing the misleading results.

In the  letter of reprimand the Chief Operating Officer of the NSF explained why the NSF is not saying that the researchers committed misconduct:

…the record overall fails to provide the preponderance of evidence necessary for a determination that your actions associated with the research at issue were intentional, knowing or sufficiently reckless to rise to the level of research misconduct.

However, the researchers had made mistakes, he noted:

With respect to the accepted research practices, what the investigative authorities found as a matter of fact was an avoidance of protocols, a failure to meet expected scientific standards, a lack of expertise or training in the field of inquiry, poor oversight of less experienced scientific team members, and the misrepresentation of data on which a conclusion was based. In short, they uncovered what most in the scientific populace would deem an absence of care, if not sloppiness, and most certainly a departure from accepted practices of the relevant research community.

The paper has been under scrutiny since 2008, explains the News & Observer:

In 2008, an internal NCSU investigation concluded that the original paper contained false data and departed from acceptable scientific practices. The investigation stopped short of finding research misconduct, concluding that Feldheim – who was responsible for verifying the presence of palladium crystals – had acted negligently, not intentionally or recklessly.

Eaton and Feldheim had both moved to the University of Colorado, which conducted its own investigation and found no wrongdoing.

Feldheim and Eaton’s former colleague Stefan Franzen has long been pushing for the record to be corrected.

According to a 2011 Nature news story NCSU has wavered in its position on this paper

In 2009, Terri Lomax, the NCSU’s vice-chancellor for research, drafted a letter to Science recommending that the journal retract the paper or contact the authors for an erratum. The letter was not sent, however, and some months later, Lomax sent a milder version that simply noted the misstatements and suggested that the editors assess whether these had been corrected in the record.

The News & Observer asked NCSU spokesman Brad Bohlander for comment:

“NC State appreciates the NSF’s attention to this matter and respects its findings,” Bohlander said. “The NSF and NC State consider the case closed.”

Last year, Eaton and Feldheim started a site called Stand Up 2 Science Bullies to respond to their critics. It looks like that site no longer exists.

Hat tip: Joseph Neff

Like Retraction Watch? Consider making a tax-deductible contribution to support our growth. You can also follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, add us to your RSS reader, and sign up on our homepage for an email every time there’s a new post. Click here to review our Comments Policy.

Comments
  • oldnuke January 9, 2016 at 10:58 am

    So why didn’t NCSU revoke her degree after the falsification of the results?

  • Robert Bauchwitz January 10, 2016 at 2:12 am

    Journalist Joseph Neff noted in his article published earlier this week about this research misconduct case that:

    “The final NSF decision did not conclude that the scientists acted intentionally or recklessly, which would have resulted in a finding of research misconduct. That decision was a step back from the findings of the Office of Inspector General, the investigative arm of the NSF, which concluded in 2013 that Eaton, Feldheim and doctoral candidate Lina Gugliotti had acted recklessly and committed research misconduct.” (The News & Observer, January 8, 2016)

    These results raise some additional questions regarding the research misconduct oversight system in general. First, why was the Office of Inspector General’s (OIG’s) finding of research misconduct softened by the NSF Director’s office?

    The statement by the NSF Director’s Office in reversing the its OIG’s finding of research misconduct seems very vague compared to the much more detailed and specific claims of the NSF OIG, as well as what has been published in the press by reporter Joseph Neff.

    a) From the NSF Director’s Office statement:

    “After reviewing the evidence presented in the report, the OIG report, and [blacked out] rebuttal letter, we find that, while there are certain facts arguably supportive of recklessness, the record overall fails to provide the preponderance of evidence necessary for a determination that your actions associated with the research at issue were intentional, knowing or sufficiently reckless to rise to the level of research misconduct.”

    Nevertheless, even the NSF Director’s Office concluded:

    “While your conduct may not support a finding of research misconduct, it does violate the NSF Act of 1950 (the NSF Act), as amended.”

    And the Director’s Office continued:

    “In this case, NSF has identified significant findings that you and your co-authors failed to disclose including: 1) a clear and consistent description of the composition of the used in Publication #1; and 2) the fact that data was not properly [blacked out] prior to Publication # 1. These omissions were as significant to the published research record in question as the significant findings that you did prepare and submit for publication.”

    So was this all really just a terrible one-time lapse by these scientists, or did the NSF’s OIG provide evidence to make a case that more likely than not this was something more, i.e. at a minimum behavior exhibiting a reckless disregard for the truth of falsity of what the authors were publishing and claiming in grants?

    Indeed, further statements from the NSF Director’s Office seem to suggest a willful and continuing unwillingness of the accused scientists to respond to corrections with which the NSF Director’s Office apparently agreed:

    “You chose not to follow the actions recommended by the investigation and failed to clarify fully the record. Taking into consideration the impact on the scientific record of ambiguous justifications and misleading terms, NSF now imposes that same requirement on you.”

    b) From the NSF OIG’s statements:

    1) “OIG Investigation concludes that:
    • Act: the Subjects’ conclusions in a published paper linked to NSF-supported
    research were not supported by contemporaneous data.
    • Intent: All three Subjects acted recklessly.
    • Standard of Proof: A preponderance of the evidence supports the assessment that the Subjects’ acts were falsification and a significant departure from accepted practices and therefore constitute research misconduct.”

    The NSF Director’s Office referenced the Black’s Law Dictionary for meaning of the term “reckless”. Since the legal meaning of this term is probably not well known to scientists, we repeat it here from the Ninth Edition of that dictionary:

    Reckless behavior is “Characterized by the creation of a substantial and unjustifiable risk of harm to others and by a conscious (and sometimes deliberate) disregard for or indifference to that risk; heedless; rash. Reckless conduct is much more than mere negligence: it is a gross deviation from what a reasonable person would do.”

    2) As part of their assessment in making a finding that the accused researchers were acting “recklessly”, the OIG claimed:

    “Even after investigations commenced, none of the subjects reviewed laboratory records, but perpetuated inaccurate statements in subsequent publications.”

    This would seem to imply a knowing resistance to correcting things which other investigating bodies seemingly had concluded needed to be corrected. Furthermore, as trained fraud investigators, NSF OIG apparently understood the importance of establishing a pattern of misbehavior:

    “The Subjects falsified assertions in Publication 1. Subject 1 and Subject 2 engaged in a pattern of reckless perpetuation of those assertions in collaborative work repeated in Publication 4 and during the investigative activities at two universities. Even when the work was called into question, the Subjects did not review the supporting data to confirm or refute the allegations which would have been a reasonable course of action. For Subject 1 and Subject 2 this reflected their continued failure to review the data initially collected by Subject 3.”

    So this case is not about some one-time mistake or failure.

    The NSF OIG further claimed that,

    “The University 1 IC [investigating committee] concluded that Subject 2 [Feldheim] was careless in that he failed to consult experts on [blacked out] and relevant data interpretation with regard to the assertion of [blacked out]. Our investigation showed (but University 1 [NC State] was unaware) that Subject 2 did consult with such an expert (Witness 1). Witness 1 told Subject 2 that the asserted [blacked out] was unlikely, warranting further care …”

    NSF OIG’s assessment was hardly waffling:

    “Our analysis of the evidence shows that collectively the Subjects consciously did not demonstrate the care a reasonable person similarly situated would about the consequences of his actions and the potential resulting harm to the research community through Publication 1.”

    So what precipitated the retreat of the NSF Director’s Office from the findings of its own OIG, and does this incident have any more general relevance for the handling of research misconduct investigation in the U.S.?

    First, as indicated from the quotes presented above, it seems that NSF OIG was more specific and extensive than the Director’s Office in their claims. Had NSF’s Director countered its OIG’s claims, that might have provided an appropriate basis to retreat from OIG’s conclusions. Instead, quite oddly, the NSF Director’s statements seem to be largely in agreement with its OIG’s claims of a continuing and deliberate resistance of the accused scientists to assessing their own data and making corrections to the literature. If so, this suggests that there may have been something other than the facts of the case that made the NSF Director back off from a finding of research misconduct.

    It is apparent that the National Science Foundation does not rely solely on the reports of its professional fraud investigators in making findings of research misconduct. In a manner typical of federal agencies, the NSF OIG’s findings are subject to “higher” level agency decision making that can “overrule” them; in this case, OIG’s findings were subject to review by the NSF Director’s Office. Indeed, as we pointed out in a recently published manuscript (available as a preprint at PeerJ: https://peerj.com/preprints/1577.pdf), biomedical research oversight by the ORI is in a similar position. ORI merely “recommends” findings to the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Health (OASH) in the Department of Health and Human Services. Former ORI director David Wright referred to OASH as an “intensely political environment”. That politicized environment led him to question whether OASH was an appropriate “home” for ORI. Therefore, while NSF OIG may have greater powers and professional anti-fraud structure than ORI (as also discussed in the PeerJ manuscript), the net result is that both ORI and NSF OIG are within agencies which are almost certainly subject to the lobbying of large institutions.

    A second question has been repeatedly raised by various members of Congress and others with respect to the handling of research misconduct cases: Were the grant funds extended to these errant scientists recovered as a result of the investigatory process?

    There is no statement to this effect in the NSF OIG’s report. Perhaps by changing a finding of research misconduct to not research misconduct, pressure to recover funds from the responsible institutions might have been avoided. To pursue such an effort is often highly contentious. This is but one of several considerations other than the plain facts of the case that arguably could have influenced the NSF Director’s Office to add up the preponderance of the evidence differently than its OIG.

    Regardless, it is an important principle in anti-fraud efforts not to have weak penalties. This includes not only for the scientists, but for the institutions which are responsible for the training and oversight of their researchers. Otherwise, if cheating is low risk and high yield, fraud is promoted rather than suppressed. A similar situation exists in many fields, including athletics, for which reason current anti-doping efforts are quite strict. (The German legislature, for example, criminalized athletic doping last November.) Cheaters will tend to drive out those who do not cheat unless there are serious penalties. For example, we can ask whether high quality scientists did not get positions at the University of Colorado, Boulder which were given to those making the spectacular, but apparently now apparently universally acknowledged as false, claims made by the subjects of this NSF report. Taxpayers as well as honest scientists lose not only financially but in other opportunity costs.

    Therefore, while having an IG oversee U.S. biomedical research misconduct cases would very likely be superior to the less capable ORI (as discussed in the PeerJ manuscript cited above), there are weaknesses to the IG system as well, one of which is in common with ORI – being subject to the political nature of their agencies.

    Nevertheless, IG’s have a further very important advantage: they report directly to Congress as well as their agency. If upon report from an IG, Congress does not feel that agency decisions are adequately protecting taxpayer interests, they can take various actions. The influence of some U.S. senators was well exhibited with respect to significantly increasing penalties in the recent Han Iowa State HIV antibody fraud case. In addition, IG’s are subject to performance audits, and they themselves can conduct agency audits. Either of those options, or a Congressional request for its GAO to do a performance audit of NSF or HHS/ORI, might also be revealing and influential. Therefore, it will be interesting to read any performance audit assessing NSF to see if concerns are raised by the outcome in this case.

  • Alan R. Price February 1, 2016 at 2:20 am

    Not at all clear to me is the rationale for interpretation of the NSF Grant Policy Manual under the NSF Act’s authority used in this NSF Director’s Office’s Letter of Reprimand:

    “After reviewing the evidence presented in the report, the OIG report, and . . . rebuttal letter, we find that, while there are certain facts arguably supportive of recklessness, the record overall fails to provide the preponderance of evidence necessary for a determination that your actions associated with the research at issue were intentional, knowing or sufficiently reckless to rise to the level of research misconduct. . . . While your conduct may not support a finding of research misconduct, it does violate the NSF Act of 1950 (the NSF Act), as amended. . . . Specifically, Section 18620-3 of the NSF Act states: An investigator supported under a Foundation award, whom the Director determines has failed to comply with the provisions of Section 734 of the Foundation Grant Policy Manual, shall be ineligible for a future award under any Foundation supported program or activity. . . . Section 734(a) of the Grant Policy Manual, explains that ‘[i]nvestigators are expected to promptly prepare and submit for publication … all significant findings from work conducted under NSF grants.’ [http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/manuals/gpm05_131/gpm7.jsp#734] In this case, NSF has identified significant findings that you and your co-authors failed to disclose including: 1) a clear and consistent description of the composition of the used in Publication #1; and 2) the fact that data was not properly prior to Publication # 1. These omissions were as significant to the published research record in question as the significant findings that you did prepare and submit for publication. Accordingly, consistent with §18620-3 of the NSF Act, I have determined that from the date that this action becomes final you shall be ineligible for a future award under any NSF supporting program or activity . . . [and] because NSF has not made a finding of research misconduct in this case, the appeal rights laid out in 45 CPR§ 689.IO(a) are not applicable” [NSF DEBARMENT REGULATIONS].

    It appears that the NSF Director’s Office is interpreting the NSF Grant Policy Manual wording – that investigators are “expected” to promptly prepare and submit for publication all significant research findings – to mean instead that investigators are “required” to do so, or they can be essentially debarred from NSF funding for a period – and that this act of making them ineligible for a future NSF award can be imposed with no right to an appeal [one which is allowed under the NSF debarment regulations, applicable to findings that they had committed research misconduct http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/manuals/gpm05_131/gpm9.jsp#931 that was intentional, knowing, or sufficiently reckless (which the NSF Director’s Office and the universities did not find in this case).

  • Anonymous November 4, 2016 at 2:53 am

    Feldheim continues as professor at U Colorado Boulder:
    http://www.colorado.edu/chembio/dan-feldheim
    “Bruce Eaton represents two organizations. Velocity Sciences Inc. as President and CEO; and i2 Pharmaceuticals Inc., as Chairman and CEO.”
    http://www.cobioscience.com/board-of-directors/bruce-eaton-ph-d

  • Post a comment

    Threaded commenting powered by interconnect/it code.