Neuroscientist made up data in NIH grant applications, says ORI

Paul Muchowski, via Gladstone Institute

Paul Muchowski, a neuroscience researcher at the Gladstone Institute of Neurological Disease in San Francisco, faked data in multiple grant applications, according to findings released today by the Office of Research Integrity (ORI).

In a funded NIH grant, R01 NS054753-06A1, and two submitted grant applications, R01 NS054753-06 and R01 NS047237-06, ORI says that Muchowski “knowingly and intentionally” committed “research misconduct by falsifying and fabricating data” as follows:

  • falsely reported research experiments when the results did not exist at the time the grant applications were submitted. Specifically:
    •  in Figure 5 and the accompanying text of grant R01 NS054753-06A1, the Respondent described the insertion of toxic and inert mutant huntingtin (htt) fragments into maltose binding protein-Htt-Cerulean constructs with a nonpathogenic (25Q) or pathogenic (46Q) polyQ repeat, with and without Cerulean.  The modified proteins were claimed to have been purified, when the constructs had not been made at the time the grant was submitted.
    • in Figures 5 and 6 and the accompanying text of grant R01 NS054753-06A1, the Respondent claimed to have cloned toxic and inert mutant htt fragments into lentiviral constructs and generated lentiviruses, when the constructs were not made.
    • in Figure 6 and related text in grant R01 NS054753-06A1, the Respondent claimed to have tested immunoblots of lysates from primary neurons with an antibody against mutant htt, which demonstrated that levels of htt expression in transduced cells were roughly equivalent to levels in normal neurons, when the experiment was not conducted.
    • falsified Figure 3 of grant application R01 NS054753-06 by labeling the Western blot images for the expression of mutant htt in lentiviral-transduced primary neurons as ‘Cortex’ (left panel) and ‘Striatum’ (right panel), when the results were actually from the microglial cell lines N9 and BV2, respectively.

Muchowski agreed to have his research supervised for two years, and to not serve on any NIH committees — or any at the Public Health Service, the umbrella agency of the NIH — forthe same length of time.

The neuroscientist told Retraction Watch he had no comment, and that no papers would be retracted. His status at the Gladstone is unclear; while the ORI refers to him as a “former senior investigator,” he responded to an email sent to his Gladstone account but did not specify whether he was still employed there.

Muchowski is widely cited, with a dozen papers cited more than 100 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge. A profile in the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year described how he and his father, a retired Roche scientist, were working together on a compound to treat Alzheimer’s and other degenerative diseases.

Update, 8:45 p.m. Eastern, 12/30/12: The Gladstone Institutes sent us this statement, noting that Muchowski resigned last month and that it was one of his colleagues who alerted the administration to what had happened:

Paul J. Muchowski, PhD, last month resigned his position as an investigator at the Gladstone Institutes, a biomedical-research nonprofit. Dr. Muchowski’s resignation followed a thorough investigation that found he committed scientific misconduct regarding grant applications to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). During the investigation, Dr. Muchowski admitted that he falsified or fabricated data for experiments he had not conducted at the time of grant submission.

This matter was reviewed in an intensive process that spanned several months, in accordance with Gladstone policy and federal requirements for NIH grantee organizations. First, it was reviewed by an internal committee and then by an investigative committee that included senior scientists from the University of California, San Francisco, with which Gladstone is affiliated. Both committees concluded that Dr. Muchowski’s falsification and fabrication of data in grant applications clearly departed from accepted practices in the research community and constituted scientific misconduct. Gladstone’s president and trustees agreed with the committees’ conclusions.

Gladstone recognizes Dr. Muchowski’s positive contributions to scientific research during his time at the Institutes. However, scientific misconduct has no place at Gladstone. In this case, Gladstone’s expectations and culture of scientific integrity led to reporting of the misconduct. All subsequent steps to investigate and take administrative actions were also faithful to Gladstone’s own policies and to the scientific community’s best practices.

“As individuals and as an institution, we at Gladstone stand for, and insist upon, the highest standards of integrity in all that we do—but human beings are fallible, and examples of misconduct are an unfortunate possibility in any organization or community,” commented Gladstone President R. Sanders Williams, MD. “We are saddened by this event, but heartened that our research culture encouraged a colleague of Dr. Muchowski to alert us to this matter. From that point, our established policies guided us through careful review to a resolution of this situation.”

Throughout the investigation, Gladstone has been in close communication with the Office of Research Integrity of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which on December 28, 2012, published its findings and ensuing sanctions online.

Please see an update on this post, with an apology and clarification from Muchowski.

25 thoughts on “Neuroscientist made up data in NIH grant applications, says ORI”

  1. Boy, being banned from serving on NIH study sections and committees for two whole years is some nasty punishment…. ORI people are so vindictive!

    1. I suspect that his R01 grant has two years left. Supervision assures that any co-PIs and post-docs are not too tainted by their association. I am assuming that the two submitted grants were not funded.

  2. “ORI people are so vindictive!”

    ORI has very limited powers, and I believe rightly so. It is not the government or NIH who employs these people and so it is not up to those groups to discipline, punish, or fire them. That is the job of the university or other organization that does employ them (which may choose to do so or not based on their own policies, etc).

    What ORI can do it establish and document that misconduct has occurred and publish the fact. These findings can be considered during all future reviews of funding applications. The question is, has anyone ever gotten government funding after an ORI finding of misconduct?

    Finally, I would like to point out that it is only in scientific research that standards of this height are demanded. The actions in this case (claiming a project is further along than it is) would, in the business world, not even be considered unusual, much less unacceptable.

    1. This is exactly right. I imagine that study sections will be made fully aware of the ORI’s investigation in all future grant applcations. No small matter, that.

    2. The fraudulence didn’t involve just claiming the project was further along; it also involved making up the results before an experiment was done. Anticipation of creating a reagent in the lab might be forgivable, but making up the results to work not yet undertaken is over the line.

    3. And if you talk with the ORI folks, which I have, they too agree that they should have limited powers. All they do is investigate and pass their findings onto other decision making. Much how many criminal systems work, except that I do not believe that they “want” to find misconduct.

    4. I disagree. If ORI and NIH have such limited powers, why do other researchers who have been found guilty of misconduct get hit with multi-year bans on applying for grants while Muchowski is banned only from serving on committees? Maybe, as S suggests, the fraudulent applications didn’t get funded. No harm, no foul? But one of the violations occurred on a project that was funded.

      If you catch a student trying to cheat, and you prevent him/her from actually doing it, do you then decide that no punishment is necessary because the attempt was not successful? If NIH catches false statements in an application and doesn’t fund the application, should the researcher escape consequences because NIH was not hoodwinked into investing money? Maybe I’m being too black-and-white about this, but I think the behavior of trying to cheat, whether or not one is successful, should have serious consequences.

      Regarding your last statement, no, such behavior is not acceptable in the business world. It goes by several names, including false advertising. Newspapers (okay, I’m old, web posts these days) and courts are full of reports of such doings. It is unfortunate that more cases are not pursued, but the victims sometimes think the required investment is too great, or they are prevented by industry-sponsored legislation from pursuing their claims. But that does not mean that such actions are acceptable. I can tell you that clients and customers are angry when items and services they have bought turned out to be “not as described”.

      1. You are correct, there is plenty of harm and foul here: the ORI statement attaches misconduct not only to two submitted applications (R01 NS054753-06 and R01 NS047237-06), but the ultimately-funded version of the first (R01 NS054753-06A1). I can’t help but think of the honest, worthy application that was NOT funded because of this misconduct, and the resultant collateral damage done to careers, scientific progress, and public benefit. Has any misconduct-induced sanction imposed by NIH *EVER* been commensurate to the damage done?

        And let’s not forget that NIH sanctions were applied in this case, meaning that negotiations between NIH and this clown were conducted and concluded “satisfactorily.” I believe it is perfectly fair to be “black and white” about it and to criticize NIH for imposing a set of penalties that can charitably be described as laughable. I can only imaging my parents punishing me similarly when I was a child: “You stole money from my wallet, so I’m going to punish you by not letting you take out the garbage.”

        Are there any mechanisms for US taxpayers to bring suit against NIH/PHS for failing to adequately punish demonstrated cases of fraud? I want my money back, damn it.

      2. “Are there any mechanisms for US taxpayers to bring suit against NIH/PHS for failing to adequately punish demonstrated cases of fraud? I want my money back, damn it.”

        No chance. I think you will find that Congress has not given NIH or ORI the powers you wish they had.

        But for those that want ORI to be more powerful, I want you to consider carefully what you are asking for. Do you really want “government bureaucrats” to be able to unilaterally levy sanctions on a scientist? Are you confident that they will always be right? Are you confident that there will never be political or other pressure brought in ORI?

        Alternatively, do you want ORI to rush forward with numerous legal cases? Do you support transferring money from research to lawsuits? Proving fraud or other tort would be very difficult and very easy to defend. And recovering any money would be essentially impossible. In the case of Muchowski, the defense would be “At the time of writing we believed we had achieved the specified results, which later proved to be untrue.” How would ORI prove in court that that was not a true statement? As for recovery of money, the University would be able to show, in detail, that the funds were used for precisely the purposes for which they were given (salaries, fringe, overhead, supplies).

        To carry out the suit the cost would be something like 3 lawyers for 5 years, say $4.5 million plus 10% for costs.

        Do you not think it is better to just let ORI carry out an independent investigation and let the employers take can of disciplinary, employment, and possible legal responses?

      3. Thanks, D Cameron. Love the bit about the negotiations being concluded “satisfactorily”. It’s satisfactory only to the cheater. The government should put tougher negotiators on these cases.

        Dan Zabetakis, we don’t let crime go unpunished on the grounds that we would rather spend our money on education and national parks. We should find money for both. If the budget is absolutely fixed, then yes we should allocate some of it toward ensuring honesty.

        You should not rely on universities to punish cheaters. A successful cheater brings in millions for the university. If an unsuccessful cheater doesn’t bring harm to the university pocketbook, the university is happy to declare the incident an honest mistake or an accidental slip-up. Just look at how lax universities are about cheating within their own domains by the students that they themselves are endorsing, and you will see what you can expect in the way of universities punishing researchers who cheat on grant proposals.

  3. Must be more to this than explained above. Does ORI examine lab records when checking out a grant application ? Someone with a lot of knowledge about Muchowski’s published and unpublished research must also have had access to his grant applications. Perhaps it is a subplot from a novel by C.P. Snow.

    1. One possibility is a disgruntled student or postdoc. Something like this happened many years ago when one of my fellow students came across a figure from her advisor’s proposal. It was her data, but mislabeled to indicate that it was from an experiment that had never been performed. She blew the whistle, but the ensuing mess it made of her life made me wonder if it was worth it.

    2. My bet is that it was the NIH Program Manager who spotted up the falsifications. While a student or post0-doc is a possibility, the PM is really the only person who looks carefully at proposals vs results and would have reason to question whether the work performed was in accordance with the funded project. Rival scientists on a study session would also have the required knowledge and motive.

      1. In reply to your earlier comment, your points are well taken. However, I think an issue is “let ORI carry out an independent investigation…”. My understanding of the process is that the University (or research institute) carries out the investigation and then ORI vets the process. The question is whether the University can really carry out an independent investigation. They are in fact the recipient of the grant (not the PI), have received the majority of the funds (in overhead and salaries for the investigator, postdocs, and students), and may have considerable vested financial interests in terms of patents (as well as reputation issues). And I agree that money to pursue such cases is a huge issue. Don’t know what the solution to this apparent growing problem is…

      2. Possibly, but I’m not sure how the PM or competitors would know whether the constructs had been made. As a reviewer, I would know whether a statement is off base, or a figure looks just plain wrong, but the level of detail suggests someone inside the lab to me. We will probably never know.

      3. The information out there on the web states that one of Muchowski’s colleagues at Gladstone turned him in. As others have said, I doubt NIH program managers are going to be able to spot fraud with the information they’re given. Rival scientists are also unlikely to distinguish between fraud and actual scientific differences.

  4. The submission of false data in a grant request to a federal agency is considered fraud and is punishable by imprisonment or a fine.Such cases would have to be referred to the Justice Department by ORI,.
    There have been a handful of such cases.More well publicized prosecutions might serve as a deterrent.

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