“An evolving and inconsistent tale:” Biochemist barred from federal grants for five years

In 2013, Frank Sauer blamed “visual distortion” for problems with the images in his papers and grant applications. That explanation gave way to the production in 2016 of a mysterious and ominous letter from an unnamed researcher claiming that they’d sabotaged Sauer’s work in a plot of revenge. Soon after, Sauer was claiming that a mysterious cabal was plotting to undermine the output of German researchers.

Whatever Sauer was selling, Leslie Rogall, an administrative law judge for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Departmental Appeals Board, wasn’t buying.

Rogall has concluded that the Office of Research Integrity acted properly in 2016 when it found Sauer — a former faculty member in biochemistry at the University of California, Riverside — guilty of misconduct. His offense: doctoring images in three published papers and seven grant applications to the National Institutes of Health.

In a May 22 decision first posted today, she writes (italics hers):

Even assuming all facts in the light most favorable [to Sauer], including those facts that push the extreme limits of plausibility and credibility, the only reasonable inference that can be drawn from the undisputed material facts of this case is that [Sauer] committed research misconduct by intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly falsifying and fabricating data.” 

Sauer, who garnered nearly $3 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health, had earlier received sanctions from the National Science Foundation, which barred him for five years from receiving grants, from 2015 until 2020. And now that Rogall’s ruling is public, the ORI has done the same, but beginning June 22 of this year and lasting until 2020.

Sauer, whose whereabouts we were unable to determine, also has multiple retractions, including two papers in Science, for image manipulation. One of these, a 2006 article titled “Noncoding RNAs of trithorax response elements recruit Drosophila Ash1 to Ultrabithorax,” has been cited 164 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.  Sauer also had a 2002 research letter in Nature retracted.  

Another 2010 paper in PLoS ONE has yet to be retracted or corrected, although Rogall’s judgment notes that some action “is warranted” based on the ORI’s verdict. The ORI, which says it will now ask the journal to correct or retract the paper,

found by a preponderance of the evidence that the Respondent engaged in research misconduct by intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly falsifying and/or fabricating images in seven (7) submitted NIH grant application and three (3) published papers by manipulating, reusing, and falsely labeling images.

The details of Sauer’s case are available in the judgment from Rogall, which paints a picture of a man desperately trying to dig himself out of a hole — with a fork. As Rogall observes, Sauer offered “an evolving and inconsistent tale” for how the doctored images made their way onto his pages.

To his former institution, Sauer reportedly dismissed the claims against him as

‘hyper-technical, and none of the alleged instances of image manipulation caused the papers in which they appear to be anything other than an accurate and honest reflection of Dr. Sauer’s scientific work.’

At that point, in 2013, Sauer wasn’t saying he’d been the victim of sabotage. But he did tell the university that “his notebooks and original data had been stolen in the past,” according to the document — and that those missing data held the proof that no misconduct had occurred.

Even when the NSF — which awarded Sauer nearly $600,000 in 2005  —  began investigating in 2014, the biochemist didn’t raise the specter of sabotage. That happened in early 2016, when he produced a letter to the NSF that he’d purportedly translated from German (his native language) into English. According to Rogall’s decision, the letter read:

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. I have lost my job, you yours.

That led to one of the more bizarre revelations: To push his revenge plot, Sauer appears to have forged the seal and signature of a notary public — a misdemeanor criminal offense — in order to buttress his story that a person named “Rune Dreser” was part of a shadowy anti-Teutonic conspiracy “‘to achieve the discontinuation of all gene-technological work in Germany with all available methods.’”  

All we can say about Rune Dreser is that no one with that name, in Germany or elsewhere, pops up in the Google machine.

As an aside, we recently came across another retraction issued in 1996, of a 1996 Cell paper on which Sauer is the first author, citing “technical problems:”

We previously reported that transcriptional activation of hunchback (hb) and huckebein (hkb) by Bicoid in the Drosophila embryo is impaired by mutations in TAFII110 and TAFII60. This conclusion was based on in situ staining of wild-type versus mutant embryos (Figures 5 and 6 of Sauer et al., Cell 87[7], 1271–1284, 1996). However, we have come to realize that, due to technical problems with our previous embryo staining procedures, the in vivo results in Figures 5 and 6 are incorrect and those in Figures 7–9 are uncertain. Recent data by J. Zhou and R. T. indicate that mutations in TAFII60 (Figure 1 below) and TAFII110 (data not shown) have no detectable effect on hb expression. However, the isolation and molecular characterization of these TAFII mutants (Figure 1–3, Sauer et al., 1996) is correct and recent studies (see Zhou et al., 1998) suggest that these TAFII mutations affect Dorsal-mediated activation of snail and twist in the Drosophila embryo. We thank Gary Struhl, Claude Desplan, and Mike Levine for alerting us to problems in our previous embryo staining experiments and Jumin Zhou for the results in Figure 1.

“TAF(II)s Mediate Activation of Transcription in the Drosophila Embryo” has been cited 63 times.

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10 thoughts on ““An evolving and inconsistent tale:” Biochemist barred from federal grants for five years”

    1. This hasn’t been worked through in the scientific realm, but it is my understanding that if you set out to do something, that’s intentional. If something happens because of your actions and you were aware that it was likely to happen (though not your intent), that’s knowing.

  1. I don’t understand why NIH and the NSF don’t share information about sanctions against grantees for research misconduct. Further, I don’t understand why the perpetrator receives only a five-year ban on research funding instead of a life-time ban. There are too many researchers chasing insufficient grant support to satisfy demand. How to reduce the their number rationally and thereby send a strong message that cheating, if caught, amounts to a career death sentence? Answer: Ban cheaters who are caught for life from research support! There will be more money for which honest researchers can compete.

    1. I think there are relatively minor cases where a lifetime ban would be overkill. However, I agree with you in general. When I see some of these cases, and understanding that young scientists cannot find jobs, and established scientists have difficulty with funding, why should we allow cheaters to continue?

  2. Professor Noble,

    I think the idea of one, three, five, seven etc. bans is to try to achieve some equivalence with incarceration for civil/criminal acts.

    I agree that in most cases the punishment does not fit the crime and that there should be more lifetime bans.

    I for one find little difference between fabricating or falsifying data versus forging a check or making a crooked real estate deal [just to name a few examples]. Plagiarizing or falsely taking credit for someone else’s work is thief.

    Scientific misconduct is its own brand of “white collar” crime, and certainly has the potential to do more societal harm than most civil crimes that are often punished much more approporiately. Some of the so-called scientists that I have known that commit misconduct are equally as corrupt as the most hardened street thugs.

    I wish that a finding of research misconduct would be followed quickly by a trial in the civil courts with fines and jail time as possible outcomes.

    1. I entirely agree with you. However, NIH has its “favorites”–internal and external–who have repeatedly gotten a pass. I suspect the situation is akin to clerical pedophilia, the culprits know too much about the higher-ups to be exposed for who they are. The odds for getting a life-time ban on future research funding accepted as public policy look to me as slim to zero. At some point corruption is so much part of the culture that it is impossible to push back without a bloody revolution . . . against which most everybody recoils in horror. So we are stuck with symbolic wrist-slapping and lots of wailing by the onlookers . . . some of which gets published for consumption by a small audience who lack power to intervene. The conflicts of interest are just too ubiquitous and divisive to allow development of a critical mass capable to making a difference, IMHO.

  3. Too many people distrust science and prefer to believe various mumbo jumbo from pseudoscientists, philosophers opinions, polititions opinions, religious preachers etc. and it is a constant struggle for rationalists to try and convince people that science is, although not always absolutely correct, ‘the best answer we have’. In my opinion scientists who cheat need to be treated by society every bit as severely as fraudsters ,con men,and extortionists etc.
    So for a case like the one in question perhaps a lifetime funding ban together with a spell in prison would be appropriate.

  4. On the question of lifetime vs various periods of years for federal-wide debarment of those who commit research misconduct, the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) has a long history of such administrative actions, whose length depended on the seriousness and impact on humans of the misconduct. The “standard” or typical debarment of an individual from federal funding that is imposed by ORI and other federal agencies for serious research misconduct is 3 years (88 cases by ORI since 1992). While ORI has imposed or negotiated 1 year (3 cases) or 2 year (13 cases) in lesser ones, ORI has also imposed in 40 other cases considerably more years, listed below (up to lifetime in 3 “medical” cases – see below):

    [case summaries in the ORI Annual Reports since 1993 at http://ori.hhs.gov/annual_reports but in 2016-2017, not available on ORI website) for 286 ORI findings, with 151 debarments ]

    – 4 years (Washabaugh 1996, Hajra 1997, Tracy 2002, Xu 2004, Sperber 2008)

    – 5 years (Lee 1993, Rosner 1993, Tewari* 1994, London 1997, Angelides 1999, Simmons 2000, Garey 2001, Arnold 2002, Handa 2002, Ruggerio 2002, Smith 2002, Yao 2002, Eagan 2003, Ganz 2003, Muenchen 2003, Hiserodt 2004, Jacoby 2005, Aronica 2006, Leadon 2006, Robinson 2007, Roovers 2007, Uzelmeier [Marcus] 2007, Van Parijs 2009, Sezen 2010, Zach 2012, Briones 2015, Reddy 2015)

    – 7 years (Brodie 2010, Smart 2012, Thiruchelvam 2012)

    – 8 years (Poisson 1993)

    – 10 years (Dreyer* 2001, Gelband 2004, Thomas 2009)

    – lifetime (Poehlman 2005 [and prison term by DoJ of 1 year], Kornak 2006 [and prison term by DoJ of 7 years], and Sudbø 2007).

    According to federal debarment regulations, the federal administrative actions are not intended to be “punitive” but instead are imposed to protect the federal interest (i.e., taxpayer dollars) for a given period.

    1. Alan,

      If federal administrative actions are “imposed to protect the federal interest” for a given period and not to punish, why then the variability in years of banned funding? The the taxpayer interest is a constant–“forever” if you ask us.” The data you provide correlates with “seriousness” of the offense. The inconsistency in ORI judgments suggests the need for ORI to set a uniform standard for “protecting the federal interest” and sticking to it.

      As a taxpayer, I favor the “forever” standard of protection. As a policy analyst, I would argue for a lifetime ban in order to produce a better balance between supply and demand for researchers. Eliminating the dishonest ones serves both to cull excess supply and to serve the interests of justice.

  5. From our recent experience, we believe that the misconduct world is changing rapidly. For example, there is increasing discussion among academics and legislators regarding the application of criminal procedure and sanctions in research misconduct cases when public monies are involved.

    My colleagues and I conclude that the strategies of the accused are evolving, also. We predict that we will see more respondents attempting to claim whistle blower status, even after the fact, as seen in a recently reported case in which an administrative judge ruled incomprehensibly that, although she did not disagree with misconduct findings, nevertheless the sanctions imposed resulted from retaliation.

    Our experience is that when a legal strategy seems to prevail, it becomes a popular strategy for others to try. We are surprised the respondent in this story did not attempt this.

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