Saturday, November 20, 2010

Research misconduct in the marketplace for science

Lately there have been a number of news stories about research misconduct of the "conventional" sort, involving scientists falsifying the scientific record by fabricating or misrepresenting data. When federal granting agencies find that someone has committed this kind of fraud they have procedures for denying them future grants, etc.

Here's a story about a kind of egregious scientific misconduct that is not covered by such procedures, although the criminal law addresses a small part of it. The story is about a scientist who sabotoged another scientist's experiments: Research integrity: Sabotage!

"Bhrigu, over the course of several months at Michigan, had meticulously and systematically sabotaged the work of Heather Ames, a graduate student in his lab, by tampering with her experiments and poisoning her cell-culture media. Captured on hidden camera, Bhrigu confessed to university police in April and pleaded guilty to malicious destruction of personal property, a misdemeanour that apparently usually involves cars: in the spaces for make and model on the police report, the arresting officer wrote "lab research" and "cells".
"Bhrigu's actions are surprising, but probably not unique. There are few firm numbers showing the prevalence of research sabotage, but conversations with graduate students, postdocs and research-misconduct experts suggest that such misdeeds occur elsewhere, and that most go unreported or unpoliced. In this case, the episode set back research, wasted potentially tens of thousands of dollars and terrorized a young student. More broadly, acts such as Bhrigu's — along with more subtle actions to hold back or derail colleagues' work — have a toxic effect on science and scientists. They are an affront to the implicit trust between scientists that is necessary for research endeavours to exist and thrive.

"Despite all this, there is little to prevent perpetrators re-entering science. In the United States, federal bodies that provide research funding have limited ability and inclination to take action in sabotage cases because they aren't interpreted as fitting the federal definition of research misconduct, which is limited to plagiarism, fabrication and falsification of research data. In Bhrigu's case, administrators at the University of Michigan worked with police to investigate, thanks in part to the persistence of Ames and her supervisor, Theo Ross.
"At Washtenaw County Courthouse in July, having reviewed the case files, Pollard Hines delivered Bhrigu's sentence. She ordered him to pay around US$8,800 for reagents and experimental materials, plus $600 in court fees and fines — and to serve six months' probation, perform 40 hours of community service and undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

"But the threat of a worse sentence hung over Bhrigu's head. At the request of the prosecutor, Ross had prepared a more detailed list of damages, including Bhrigu's entire salary, half of Ames's, six months' salary for a technician to help Ames get back up to speed, and a quarter of the lab's reagents. The court arrived at a possible figure of $72,000, with the final amount to be decided upon at a restitution hearing in September.

"Before that hearing could take place, however, Bhrigu and his wife left the country for India...
"Now that Bhrigu is in India, there is little to prevent him from getting back into science. And even if he were in the United States, there wouldn't be much to stop him. The National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, through its Office of Research Integrity, will sometimes bar an individual from receiving federal research funds for a time if they are found guilty of misconduct. But Bhigru probably won't face that prospect because his actions don't fit the federal definition of misconduct, a situation Ross finds strange. "All scientists will tell you that it's scientific misconduct because it's tampering with data," she says."

HT: Muriel Niederle


Anonymous said...

Is it possible to find the college from where this person graduated. You may find him may be from any one of the self financing colleges.

Anonymous said...

The self financing colleges in India are those run by profiteers, who try to fleece students and provide no or least infrastructure. The student learns these unethical methods of living and you will find them practicing the same.In Chennai, a MBA graduate from self financing college is found to kidnap students and another made pickpocketing his trade.