A researcher who was found guilty of committing misconduct while using three federal grants has published new findings that cite those grants.
In 2012, the U.S. Office of Research Integrity determined that Michael Miller, a former department chair at the State University of New York (SUNY) Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, had committed misconduct by falsifying and/or fabricating data. The affected research was funded by three grants issued by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
As a result, Miller agreed to not seek federal funding for one year, and then have his research supervised for two years following the debarment. (He ended up getting a gig as a grant services consultant, but lost it in 2013 after he failed to disclose his ORI sanctions to his new employer.)
Recently, Miller published two new papers — both of which cite the three grants, collectively worth millions.
Did Miller violate the sanctions established by the ORI? In short, no.
According to a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services:
Administrative actions resulting from ORI research misconduct findings generally occur over a fixed period. The respondent may or may not continue research during the period, depending on the terms of the HHS administrative action(s). If a respondent is excluded or debarred, he or she is prohibited from engaging in covered transactions as defined in the relevant regulations (see 2 C.F.R. Part 180, Subpart B and 2 CFR 376.220). After the time period in which the administrative actions have expired, the respondent may continue to work on the grant or publish from data produced under the grant subject to the supervision requirements of the case outcome.
A spokesperson for the NIH Office of Extramural Research concurred:
While the NIH does not comment on particular investigators or cases, it is possible for an investigator to continue work on an NIH-funded project after a finding of misconduct.
Here are the two papers:
- “Effect of prenatal exposure to ethanol on the pyramidal tract in developing rats,” Brain Research, October 2017.
- “Neuronal Loss in the Developing Cerebral Cortex of Normal and Bax-Deficient Mice: Effects of Ethanol Exposure,” Neuroscience, January 2018.
Miller is now a professor of anatomy at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York. It’s unclear when he conducted the research associated with the grants, which are no longer active; at one point, all were switched to a different project leaders, including Frank Middleton at Upstate Medical University. We contacted Miller, but did not receive a response.
“Complete lack of collegiality”
Since we first covered Miller’s case, we’ve obtained documents via a public records request that paint a picture of how he tried to limit the damage the investigation had on his career. For instance, communications between his co-author Huaiyu Hu and the editor of Developmental Neuroscience over a scheduled retraction show how Miller pushed to have the notice attribute the problems to “unintentional errors;” the notice ended up referring to the findings of misconduct by Miller’s institution, and saying Hu was not at fault. Although the idea of an erratum was initially proposed, rather than an outright retraction, the oversight committee noted in 2011 that the paper contained fabricated data, which “is therefore a fatal flaw and one that is not addressed by the erratum.” It concluded:
In addition, we are very concerned over the complete lack of collegiality that Dr. Miller continues to show toward Drs. Hu and [Eric] Olson, two individuals that have been damaged most by Dr. Miller’s actions.
Kristen Grace, a former ORI investigator who oversaw Miller’s case, told Retraction Watch that Miller also tried to circumvent the ORI’s sanctions. Following his one-year-debarment, Miller agreed to have his research supervised for two years, during which a committee of faculty at his institution would review his data and submit a report to the ORI.
According to Grace, however, Miller asked multiple people outside of his institution to write a letter to the ORI about the merits of a grant application, not about the data it contained (which is what ORI had required). After she contacted the dean of the institution where Miller was based at the time (somewhere in Kansas; she can’t recall where) to send him a copy of the Federal Register notice about the ORI’s findings in the case, she recalled, the grant application was immediately withdrawn.
What’s more, said Grace, according to the ORI’s findings, Miller included falsified and/or fabricated data in the applications to obtain the grants cited in his two recent papers — so any paper that builds on that data could be problematic, as well. “Someone with knowledge of the science would have to determine this,” she said.
A spokesperson for Touro told us:
The incident occurred 6 years ago…Dr. Miller was hired 4 years ago. There have been no issues while working at Touro.
He passed all background checks and had good references.
We asked if Touro knew about Miller’s ORI finding before hiring him; the spokesperson declined to comment.
Last year, a recent project of Miller’s — a study using digital models in place of cadavers for medical school students — was covered by Inside Higher Ed.
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