ORI sanctions Oregon eye stem cell researcher for faking data in grant applications

Peter Francis

Peter Francis, a former Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) eye researcher, has been sanctioned by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI) for claiming, in grant applications, to have performed experiments that he hadn’t actually done.

According to ORI’s case summary, Francis

engaged in research misconduct in research reported in two grant applications, R01 EY021214-01 and resubmitted as R01 EY021214-01A1, that he submitted to the National Eye Institute (NEI), National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Specifically, ORI finds that the Respondent fabricated results of a pilot experiment in which he claimed to have injected retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells obtained from Rhesus monkey embryonic stem cells (ECS) into a strain of rats (RCS) that develops retinal degeneration.

Respondent claimed that after the injection of ECS-derived RPE cells 21 days postnatal, the rats were tested at day 60 postnatal for optomotor acuity, and that the retinal histology of eyes receiving ECS-derived RPE cells, compared to mock-injected controls, showed enhanced photoreceptor preservation and no adverse effects. Respondent admitted that this experiment had not been conducted either by the time the original grant application had been submitted or by the time the later R01 EY021214-01A1 application was submitted.

For two years, Francis will need to have his research supervised, and “any institution employing him shall provide assurance that each application for PHS funds, or report, manuscript, or abstract involving PHS supported research in which Respondent was involved was based on actual experiments or was otherwise legitimately derived.” He also can’t serve on any NIH peer review or other committees during that time.

He was at Oregon Health Sciences University’s Casey Eye Institute at the time he submitted the fraudulent grant applications, but decided to leave OHSU at the conclusion of the investigation, a university spokesperson tells Retraction Watch.

There are no retractions involved, because there haven’t been any papers, but Francis is reasonably well-published, including in JAMA. He has also worked with Advanced Cell Technologies on stem cell treatments for retinal disease, but an ACT spokesperson tells us:

Peter Francis was not involved in any meaningful way with the work/research related to ACT.

Francis also won Career Development Awards from the Foundation Fighting Blindness and Research to Prevent Blindness.

Update, 1 p.m. Eastern, 4/16/12: OHSU sent us the following statement, noting that the work in Francis’ lab will continue:

OHSU takes research integrity matters very seriously. When questions were raised about one of Dr. Francis’ research projects, he was immediately placed on leave.  An investigation took place by our Scientific Integrity Committee and the results were reported to the Office of Research Integrity of the National Institutes of Health. At the conclusion of the investigation, Dr. Francis decided to leave the university. 

As you likely aware, personnel issues are confidential for the sake of staff privacy so we cannot provide further information about Dr. Francis’ decision to leave OHSU. However, we can confirm the information that was published in the Federal Register:

  • That Dr. Francis was found to have engaged in research misconduct in two grant applications that were submitted for funding
  • That he fabricated results of a pilot experiment cited in those grant applications
  • That Dr. Francis has entered into a Voluntary Settlement Agreement with the Department of Health and Human Services to have his research supervised for a 2-year period under specific guidelines.
  • That Dr. Francis is also excluded from serving as a Public Health Service advisor for a period of two years

The importance of the ongoing research previously conducted in the Francis Lab at OHSU has been recognized by the National Institutes of Health, which approved the appointment of new Principal Investigators at OHSU to continue the work.  

OHSU has several mechanisms in place to rapidly respond when concerns about research are raised.  These measures include methods for reporting concerns by staff and colleagues and continuous oversight by our research integrity office. This is a case where those systems worked well and we were able to respond appropriately.

18 thoughts on “ORI sanctions Oregon eye stem cell researcher for faking data in grant applications”

  1. This makes me wonder: was he just desperate to have a grant for tenure or some such decisions? I get more and more interested in the incentives of our system…

    1. BB- the blindness foundation funding summary said he’d been faculty since 2006 and RePORTER pulls no other NIH funding. I bet the pressure was on this guy to land an award…

    2. I’m sure very desperate. Without any current funding, obtaining an R01 is near impossible. The R and K NIH grants are funding reimbursement mechanisms. Without substantial “preliminary data” it is next to impossible to get a grant funded. Unfortunately, the preliminary data required not only requires a proof of principle experiment. What the grant writer really needs to do in order to be competitive is to demonstrate, with data figures, that his/her underlying hypothesis is true. So, the grant gets funded because there are near certain odds of success. There is little to no risk for Institute. Then, the newly obtained grant money is used to support the next project. This is possible because the NIH has almost no oversight of R and K grants.

      For an unfunded investigator without substantial data brought in from a postdoc, the process is rigged from the beginning. For a guy like Dr. Francis looking at an impending tenure decision, and probably with a family to support, I’m sure the pressure to get some preliminary data in his grant was intense. Without it, he was looking at an almost certain end to his research career. Faking some preliminary data at least gave his grant a shot at getting some funding.

      This is not an excuse for his deception by any means. But, it doesn’t surprise me that this sort of thing happens. I’d be very interested to know how much preliminary data in R’s and K’s is, if not out right made up, is “at the least” embellished for the reviewers.

      1. The post links to Francis’ foundation award. Typically these would be used to generate preliminary data. He certainly had it better than some…

        Also, the pressure is the same for everyone, question is why some go down with their heads held high and others choose to fake data.

      2. Depending on his situation I could see faking data and seemingly like a perfectly rational thing to do. Estimate the chances of getting caught, and the likely consequences. Weight that against the chances of getting a grant without the data, and the consequences of not getting the grant. He and others in similar situations may just see it as the best chance for professional survival.

  2. I am sure he must have had the intention of carrying out these wonderful experiments with RPE stem-like cells. It’s the flip side of the coin that encourages people to “propose” experiments in grant applications that they’ve already carried out. The first approach requires you to be a fortune-teller; the second only requires you to pretend you are a fortune-teller, and miraculously, you always get it right, too. Now, if his hypothesis hadn’t borne out, and he never published, then the money would already have been in the bank and I’m sure he hoped to distract them with *other* published papers, later. This incentive system really is rotten, but I don’t have better ideas. Though I’m tempted to beg for funds on IndieGoGo or Petridish.

  3. This is tough for this guy. Everyone stretches the truth about the importance of their preliminary findings and some of the biggest names are the biggest frauds. What this guy did is arguably quite small. They must have wanted to make an example of him.

    1. Sorry? Quite small? Overstating findings versus bogus findings is quite a difference. It almost sounds like you consider the former worse than the latter.

  4. Would this be as bad as proposing doing certain experiments on your grant application with the truth being that the experiments have already been done by you? Like for example: “with the grant money we propose examining the presence of the X mutation in 20 patients with y disease of which we already have collected samples”, when the truth is you already did the experiment and know the results.

    1. I think so. I know of several foundations that explicitely mention they do not grant money retrospectively, so if someone lies about that, they’re in big trouble.

      1. Proper procedure in grant writing, especially for a proposal to be submitted to the NIH, is to present a hypothesis and then show data to convince reviewers that your proposed experiments will bear fruit (and thus support your brilliant hypothesis). This data might be an n=1 experiment, that you will then support, if funded, by repeating a few more times. Alternatively, a proper controlled experiment ready for publication can be shown. Your proposal will then involve changing only minor variables, a different primary in a Western or an inhibitor added to a described enzyme assay, for example.

      2. Fair enough, but I think “fellow” was referring to someone getting funding for something that he had already done (and would not repeat, because it was already done).

  5. The grant proposal game is a well known joke, cronyism, bias, nepotism, etc….a sham to create an illusion of “review”.

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