Unusual: HIV vaccine researcher who faked data arrested, faces felony charges

US Attorney Nicholas Klinefeldt

Dong Pyou-Han, a former researcher at Iowa State University who spiked rabbit blood samples to make it look as though a potential HIV vaccine was working, was arrested earlier this week on felony charges.

According to the Des Moines Register:

The federal charges filed by Nicholas Klinefeldt, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa, each carry a sentence of up to five years in prison. Han was arrested Monday and appeared before a magistrate judge in Ohio before being released. Han is scheduled to appear at the federal courthouse in Des Moines on Tuesday.

This case and others have led to a lively conversation about whether scientific fraud should be treated like a crime. The number of U.S. researchers who have been found guilty of fraud and have served jail time — Eric Poehlman and Scott Reuben come to mind — is very small.

Some are also asking why none of the grants based on Han’s fakery — some $10 million — are being returned to the NIH. As the the Des Moines Register story notes:

The case prompted U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley to question whether the government would ever be able to recoup any grant money awarded as the result of Han’s fraud. In a May 9 letter to Grassley, a director with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services wrote that ISU would have to repay $496,832, which was the amount of federal grant money that went toward paying Han’s salary.

The case has led to one retraction. As we reported in December, according to the Office of Research Integrity, Han agreed to a ban on NIH research for three years.

21 thoughts on “Unusual: HIV vaccine researcher who faked data arrested, faces felony charges”

    1. The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) has indeed imposed in three cases debarment for life:

      2005 — Dr. Eric Poehlman, Professor at the Univ. of Vermont, formerly at the Univ. of Maryland at Baltimore, falsified massive human subject physiology testing. DoJ also imposed a 1 year prison term plus 2 years probation for lying in an NIH grant application, with a $180,000 civil fine

      2006 — Mr. Paul Kornak, Clinical Research Coordinator at the Stratton New York Veterans Administration Medical Center, falsely claimed to be an M.D. and falsified clinical trial data, including that to enroll an ineligible veteran patient, who died from the treatment. DoJ also found negligent homicide with a 6 year prison term.

      2007 – Jon Sudbo, D.D.S., former doctoral student and faculty member at the University of Oslo, and former physician in the Department of Medical Oncology and Radiotherapy, Norwegian Radium Hospital, fabricated and/or falsified research reported in two NIH grant applications and numerous publications; he claimed falsely to have demonstrated the feasibility of preventing cancer in a high risk population with nontoxic oral agents..

  1. We need MUCH more of this action—these crimes against the public are indeed very serious and usually PAID
    for by the taxpayer!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Perhaps Han will plead guilty. If he doesn’t it will be a difficult prosecution. It’s doubtful they would be able to use any of his admissions against him.

    And the idea that the university would have to repay the government the value of Han’s salary doesn’t make sense. Why should the university pay Han’s salary twice (once to Han and once to the government)? They’ll just ask the government to recover the money from Han.

    1. IMO if you are ready to make money when things are going fine then you should also be willing to pay the penalty when things go wrong. A large chunk of the grant money goes to the universities as indirect project costs, salaries of PI, Prof, postdocs largely come from the grant money. This is one of the primary reason why universities are more than willing to look the other way when scientific misconduct is brought to their notice.
      Though I agree that regulations by universities can never ensure that each and every person is following them, if some one wants to then he/ she can always find a way hoodwink the system. That said, we do need the universities to sit up and take matters earnestly when reports of misconduct are brought to their notice.

      1. Is putting pressure on the university administration really the best way to handle it? The response is likely to be that the university shifts the burden back on investigators in the form of reporting requirements and committee work. There’s not really a lot more that even the best-intentioned administrator could do — while a less well-intentioned administrator will simply think in terms of producing enough CYA paperwork to prove that the issue is being addressed. Arguably, a significant source of the problem is that PIs already have to spend so much time on reporting that they aren’t adequately keeping track of what their people are doing in the lab.

        1. No. It is not about increasing the reporting requirements. It is about how the universities react when a misconduct charge is brought to their notice. I am speaking in general terms and not about this particular case. Just as errors can be present in a publication, it is the response of authors upon becoming aware either on their own or from others that differentiates genuine mistakes from deliberate attempts to fool the community. The problem is that administration appears to prefer to look the other way even when there are well supported claims of scientific misconduct.
          For e.g. McGill university investigation found falsification of figures in Nature and PNAS papers where Maya Saleh, a prominent faculty member is first author but recommended corrections rather than retractions. As retractionwatch readers have been told time and again by some of the highly learned scientist who know the correct results and therefore make up the data and since they already know the outcome, these falsified images have no impact on the conclusions. Similarly, the McGill misconduct committee concluded that despite the use of the “falsified” images, the conclusions of the Nature study are “appropriately founded.” We can keep arguing about why the hell would someone falsify if that would have been the outcome of a real experiment. The committee says the “touch-up” data and figures “is not an acceptable procedure.” for 2 other publications in Cell Host & Microbe and Immunity by the same author. The committee report “indicates that procedures for data management, organization and archival protection were not in compliance with the McGill Regulation on the Conduct of Research.” Despite all this Maya Saleh still continues with her position at McGill, mentoring and training graduate students and post docs!!!

    2. No, the Government gives the grants to the university as assistance for its research (in NIH grants, contracts, and fellowship) [it is extremely rare for NIH to give money directly to the applicant personally]. Thus, the university cannot tell NIH as the Government to get the money back from the person.

      Of course, the Government can try to prosecute the person directly, as with the federal Department of Justice imposing fines or getting settlements from the person directly. For example, Professor Eric Poehlman, University of Vermont, was prosecuted by DoJ and fined $180,000 for his false statements to NIH and DoJ:

      1. They would be admissable if he had been warned that his statements could be used in a criminal prosecution against him.

        Of course if he had been given that warning he might not have been so willing to make any admissions. Which in my view is why any trend towards criminal prosecution is likely to have perverse and counterproductive outcomes.

        1. Miranda only applies to custodial situations (for example, when someone is under arrest). If he was questioned during an investigation but he was not under arrest (and was “free to leave”) he would not have to be warned that his statements could be used against him, and typically they could be.

  3. The Des Moines Register article says Dong Pyou-Han “has been charged with four felony counts of making false statements.” It seems safe to assume that the false statements were associated with his research, but it would be nice to know the details. What exactly was said or written that led to the arrests?

    I am not in favor of defining research misconduct as a crime, but crimes by researchers should certainly be treated as crimes. In some cases of research misconduct, there’s a crime; in others, there is not. Processes for investigating and “sentencing” research misconduct are rightly distinct from criminal processes and should be kept so.

  4. “Some are also asking why none of the grants based on Han’s fakery — some $10 million — are being returned to the NIH”

    The question to ask is simple: What punishment would a bank robber be given for stealing 10 million dollars?

    Is there a difference?

    1. Quite a few obvious ones really.
      1. A bank robber is stealing 10 million dollars to enrich himself. The researcher is stealing 10 million dollars that will be used to fund graduate students, technicians and consumables from biotech firms.
      2. The bank robber has no altruistic motives at all, but the researcher really does want to find the cure etc.
      3. The researcher was given the 10 million on the basis of a research application that might have contained a question worth testing – so the money hasn’t been wasted, since the negative result – once revealed – adds to the knowledge base. Unless you are saying every researcher who tests a hypothesis that fails has also stolen money.

      I know some people think criminal prosecutions are just the ticket. The downside is it removes any incentive to be candid or confess. Fraudsters are aggressive and manipulative, not to mentions adept at blame shifting towards others, as it is. There is no need to add the extra incentive of avoiding jail time

      1. Little Grey Rabbit

        1a. Maybe the bank roober needs money for his sick wifes expensive medical bills. Is motive relevant for criminal activity?
        1b. Any funded people, working from a foundation of science fraud, may be horrified to learn they are barking up the wrong tree.
        2. If the researcher has faked his data, then he probably doesn’t wish to cure anything.
        3. The researcher has not revealed a negative result if he faked his data. Potentially, the researcher/fraud, has confounded the research base and put his research field colleagues back several years.

        A criminal should be punished in accordance with law. Afterall, we don’t live in the wild west, there are ules to follow.

        Perhaps, instead of avoiding jail time, the fraud, and his employer, can pay the fraudulently obtained grant funds back.

        With interest, of course.

  5. It’s about time (who cares if he gets jail time, the message needs to be sent). Now if they would get the money to a honest researcher.

  6. Seems like a perfect case to highlight the dangers of faking data. After all, it might mislead other scientists to focus on something in the hope that it could save lives, yet it is ineffective. Or think a few years down the road and suppose this vaccine would go into human trials, yet it is based on faked data. Unlikely that it ever got this far? So, this researcher was then expecting to get caught? Or did he simply not think about the long-term effects of what happens when you fake data?
    Sad that you need such extreme cases to see the damage to science and human lives, but there you go. Screw the money, think about the damage to people.

      1. Yup, I agree, there are huge “opportunity costs”.
        I still wonder though how this researcher thought it would go on from his faked data, or whether he thought about it at all. I mean, you can’t stop faking data if there are no effects, and one day it’s applied/tested by others, so it will come out anyway. What do you say then? Sloppy research? An inevitable result of probabilistic science? Or did he think he would find something better and sweep that research under the rug? Or just leave to another topic/greener pastures? Or was it the stubborn hope that this study just failed to show what should be there and would be there another time (like with a type II error)?
        Well, anyway, I hope in cases where there’s clear evidence for fraud, there will be more lawsuits. With topics like HIV vaccines perhaps even one day going so far to make a case for manslaughter. Science *is* messy and results often are far from conclusive, no reason to further obfuscate the issue with faked data. And even if the own part in science is miniscule, there’s still a responsibility. Otherwise, why do science at all?

  7. Ken, as to your question about the DoJ charges, I note this news website: http://news.yahoo.com/researcher-charged-major-hiv-vaccine-fraud-case-210853341.html

    “According to an indictment issued last week, Han’s misconduct caused colleagues to make false statements in federal grant applications and progress reports to NIH.”

    If this is correct (I am not able to find the indictment itself), it appears that he is being charged under the US Code 1001 with making false statements in a federal (NIH) grant application — even though it appears that he did not sign the grant application as the Principal Investigator. Instead, the US Attorney apparently is going to argue that his falsification or fabrication of data (that he knew would go into the grant application) “caused colleagues to make false statement in federal grant applications and progress reports.”

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