ORI: Former SUNY Upstate neuroscience dept. chair Miller manipulated data in four grant applications

Last month, we reported on two retractions by the former neuroscience and physiology department chair at the State University of New York (SUNY) Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. Both of the retractions were requested by the university after an investigation found that Michael W. Miller had committed misconduct.

Now, the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which reviews misconduct investigations by NIH grantee institutions, has weighed in. As detailed in the Federal Register, ORI found that Miller falsified or fabricated data in four NIH grant applications, the two published (and now retracted) papers, and one manuscript submitted to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). For example, he

Falsified Figure 5 in NIH grant application R01 AA07568-18A1 by altering the bar graphs to make the experimental results appear valid and consistent with his hypothesis that ethanol exposure in-utero alters the transition of cells from Pax 6 expression to Tbr2 expression, which is critical to normal brain development. Specifically:

a. In the VZ/SZ panel (upper row, right), Dr. Miller decreased the values by 50% for the bar graphs representing control and treated mice for “Tbr2,” “both,” and “both/Ki-67,” to falsely report an equivalent frequency of Tbr2 expressing cells in the right and left panels; this result was required for the experiment to appear valid;

b. In the MGE panel (lower row, right), Dr. Miller altered the bar graphs representing control and treated mice for “Ki-67,” “Pax6,” and “both” to falsely report that ethanol increased the frequency of K-67+ cells and to report an equivalent frequency of Pax expressing cells in the right and left panels.

The ORI report goes on in that vein for a while. The upshot is that in a number of situations, Miller manipulated images to make it appear that exposure to alcohol during fetal development had a greater effect than it actually did.

The report refers only to the two already-retracted papers, Developmental Neuroscience′s “Lability of Neuronal Lineage Decisions Is Revealed by Acute Exposures to Ethanol” and the Journal of Neurochemistry‘s “Functional nerve growth factor and trkA autocrine/paracrine circuits in adult rat cortex are revealed by episodic ethanol exposure and withdrawal.”

Miller, who “neither admits nor denies committing research misconduct but accepts ORI has found evidence of research misconduct,” agreed to exclude himself from “contracting or subcontracting with any agency of the United States Government and from eligibility or involvement in nonprocurement programs of the United States Government” for a year, beginning on February 6, 2012. He will also need supervision for his research for two years after that, and won’t be eligible to serve on any Public Health advisory or peer review committees for three years.

Although the two papers were only cited a handful of times, Miller’s original appointment to the Upstate faculty was greeted with a great deal of fanfare. He is no longer employed there.

Hat tip: Commenter elledr1ver

15 thoughts on “ORI: Former SUNY Upstate neuroscience dept. chair Miller manipulated data in four grant applications”

  1. We all know that drinking during pregnancy can affect adversely the fetus’ development, however, is a “small” fraud OK in the name of a Good Cause?

    1. There was no good cause here. I worked with this guy (and was involved in the investigation) and I can tell you that this was no “small” fraud. He did everything he could to push the data in the direction he wanted to and committed a significant amount of fraud in multiple cases. So believe me, this is far from “OK” and is not acceptable. Aside from the severity of this fraud, it is never acceptable to commit scientific fraud to any degree. The field depends on sound, ethical research, which sadly seems to be much less important to a lot of people lately.

    1. Agreed. Some of this splicing and other irregularities were brought up at the time, but it was not enough to label as fraud…..

      1. The 90’s? Miller has a series of papers on neurotrophin expression that are in direct contradiction with the rest of the neurotrophin field. The paper that is least in agreement (Pitts and Miller 2000, J Comp Neurol) has the proteins expressed in places and at levels that others simply do not see, The work that it contradicts from the early to mid 90’s on NGF, BDNF and NT3 were largely ignored in the discussion. You can’t say this is misconduct but seems to show disregard for the other well controlled studies. I can imagine a situation where this went to a person not in the neurotrophin field for review but it seems that someone should have questioned this before 2012.

        1. This, from the Materials and Methods section of the paper, seems to explain why the figures contain the same actin blot (ie they were “stripped of immunolabel and reprobed with a mouse monoclonal anti-actin antibody”):

          Samples of the supernatant (50 g), molecular weight markers (Amersham Biosciences, Piscataway, NJ), and an internal standard (lysate from the pooled cortices of 19-d-old fetuses; 50 g) were loaded on 15% SDS-PAGE, separated by electrophoresis, and transferred to nitrocellulose membranes. After blocking in 5.0% nonfat-dehydrated milk in 0.10% Tween 20 and PBS, blots were probed overnight at 4°C with one of the following: mouse monoclonal anti-cyclin D1 (1:500; Santa Cruz Biotechnology, Santa Cruz, CA), mouse-monoclonal anti-p27 antibody (1: 1000; PharMingen), and mouse monoclonal anti-p21 antibody (1:500; PharMingen). After washing, blots were incubated with horseradish peroxidase-linked anti-mouse (1:1000; Amersham Biosciences) for 30 min. Immunotagged protein bands were visualized using a chemiluminescent detection reagent (Amersham Biosciences). Membranes were then stripped of immunolabel and reprobed with a mouse monoclonal anti-actin antibody (1:5000; Sigma). The amount of actin protein was used as a loading control.

    1. Wasn’t the web flooded with websites detailing the achievements of Anil Potti some time back …
      Birds of the same feather??

    2. Two more sites and a twitter account….all run by the reputation changer service one would assume. Sheesh, wonder how he thinks this will help

  2. Dear All,

    As I have mentioned in other discussions, it’s time to outlaw publication fraud.

    Cases like Naoki Mori, Dipak Das, Alirio Melendez, Anil Potti, Yoshitaka Fujii, etc., etc. featured on RW make me think that we do not really know the extend of publication fraud. Please note that the main purpose for committing such fraud is very trivial – it’s all about getting more money (mainly grants of tax payers’ money) by deception. The damage is multifaceted, including depriving their honest colleagues from grants.

    According to discussion in TheScientist http://the-scientist.com/2012/03/19/opinion-academic-publishing-is-broken/#disqus_thread

    “In 2013, the US government will allocate over $140 billion to research & development”

    If (very conservatively) only 10 % of grants are obtained by fraudsters,
    IT MAKES $ 14 BILLION!!! (per year)

    Don’t you think that from tax payers’ perspective it’s worth having a new department within FBI to deal with this type of fraud?


  3. Don’t forget, the more people that access these bogus pages by MWM the more these sites will be found on googles first page, displacing articles like this one.

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