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
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