Adventures in Ethics and Science

A long time ago, I blogged about Dr. Eric T. Poehlman, formerly of the University of Vermont College of Medicine. He’s no longer there because he was caught falsifying and fabricating data in the “preliminary studies” sections of numerous grant proposals submitted to federal agencies and departments.

Today comes the news that Dr. Poehlman will be doing some time for his crimes. From the Burlington Free Press:

Former University of Vermont professor Eric Poehlman on Wednesday became the first academic researcher in the country to be sentenced to prison time for fabricating data in scientific studies.

Poehlman, 50, who now lives in Montreal, stood expressionless in federal court in Burlington as Judge William Sessions III chastised him for violating the public’s trust and ordered him to spend a year and a day in custody.

In spring 2005 Poehlman pleaded guilty to one count of making false statements in a successful 1999 application to the National Institutes of Health for a $542,000 grant, but he also admitted faking results in numerous studies and proposals for a decade beginning in 1992.

The unprecedented sentence will radiate through the American scientific community with a clear message, Sessions said: Fraud this egregious is unacceptable.

“When you commit this kind of misconduct, you put at risk a community’s acceptance of all scientific and medical research. You put at risk fully the work of other scientists,” Sessions said to Poehlman. “When scientists use their skill, their intelligence, their sophistication, their position of trust to do something that puts people at risk, that is extraordinarily serious.” …

Dr. Sally Rockey, deputy director of the Office of Extramural Research at NIH, said of Poehlman’s sentence: “The cases now are being taken much more seriously. This will serve as a reminder to scientists to act in an ethical manner.” …

Investigators and prosecutors said the case represented the most serious instance of American scientific misconduct in more than 20 years. The government said Poehlman, an expert on the effects of aging on the human body, used grant applications filled with phony data to win $2.9 million in federal money. …

Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Kelly said Sessions’ ruling could herald a sea change in how the government confronts scientific fakery. Only one other case of research misconduct, in 1988, has been referred for criminal prosecution, and the perpetrator received a suspended sentence.

“This is part of what may be considered a new era in which people are taking this kind of conduct more seriously,” Kelly said. Ramifications

Sessions focused his ire less on the money Poehlman received through tainted grants than on the impact his spurious findings had on the scientific community, where research often builds on earlier studies. Sessions also was upset with the former professor’s aggressive tactics in fighting the allegations after a research assistant discovered and reported them in 2000.

Poehlman for years denied wrongdoing, attacked his assistant’s credibility and scientific acumen, and at one point sued UVM in federal court. The lawsuit sought to prevent UVM from turning over to government investigators the incriminating conclusions from the school’s investigation into the allegations.

In the lawsuit, Poehlman testified under oath — in the same courtroom and before the same judge — that he had not conjured or manipulated his data.

The research assistant, Walter DeNino, now a 29-year-old researcher at a New York City hospital who will begin medical school at UVM in August, said the sentence sends a necessary message.

“There’s a fair amount of vindication but a sense of responsibility for this,” he said. “I brought these allegations. Although I don’t regret what I did, sometimes it’s hard to grasp the gravity of it all. All of science will be affected by this.”

UVM launched an “exhaustive” review of Poehlman’s work that is expected to conclude soon, said Frances Carr, vice president for research and graduate studies. Poehlman’s actions were an aberration among scientists, Carr said.

“The appropriate conduct of research is the highest priority not only for the University of Vermont but for the nation,” she said.

Poehlman has fulfilled other requirements of his sentence, specified in last year’s plea deal: pay $180,000 in restitution and $16,000 to cover DeNino’s attorney’s fees; send 10 letters of retraction to scientific journals that published work based on fabricated data; and agree to a lifetime ban on receiving federal funding.

That, too, was a first for scientific fraud.

(Bold emphasis added.)

It’s bad enough that Poehlman lied to get piles of federal research money, since he not only diverted money from proposed research that didn’t rely on fabricated and falsified data. He compounded this waste of resources by publishing these imaginary results, thus mucking up the reliability of the scientific literature and undercutting the efforts of honest scientists trying to build on his “results”.

But then, when caught, he lies about lying. He tries to destroy the credibility of the honest scientist who had the integrity and the guts to blow the whistle on him. You cannot trust this guy as far as you can throw him.

Clearly, the community of science can’t let Poehlman stay, because if you can’t be trusted, you can’t play a role in the project of building reliable knowledge. And, he hurt the public, wasting their money and screwing with the knowledge on which sound medical treatments are based.

Jail time seems about right. Others who are contemplating committing scientific misconduct should take note.

Comments

  1. #1 J-Dog
    June 29, 2006

    There is a lesson to be learned and it is: Watch out DI! I can see Dembski ratting out Behe for a couple of smokes and permission for a conjugal visit from Casey Luskin.

    Those guys are all lying scumbags, so the fun should start soon!

  2. #2 Kevin
    June 29, 2006

    My first reaction to this story was that the sentence seemed harsh, but the more I think about the stealing of federal money, the abhorrent attempt to discredit his assistant (which I’m assuming was a grad student–as if we don’t have enough woes as it is), and his general crimes against knowledge, the more I’m inclined to say this dude deserves to be in jail.

  3. #3 Mouth of the Yellow River
    June 29, 2006

    Ni hao! Kannichi Wa!

    The ultimate selfishness. Crooks like this guy and Churchill and other recent examples
    here, here, and here hurt us all in academia that are struggling to express those few human-specific genes that impart sensitivity to the group whatever they are that differentiate us from other species.

    Perhaps the grandstanding, flaunting the system, pushing things to the limit without regard for us all are all they got since they have no basics.

    The tragedy of these examples are that the individuals in the support system that propped them up, their mentors with an agenda, the committees with an agenda, and those members of them who caved into those of power with their agenda and got them in the situation which they should not have been on criteria other than basic credentials will go scott free to repeat, repeat, and repeat the same mistakes.

    MOTYR

  4. #4 J at Element List
    June 30, 2006

    I’m glad to see that someone is getting serious jail time for their misconduct. There’s a lot of screwy stuff that goes on in academic research that is often swept under the rug or blatently ignored. But now that someone is finally going to JAIL for serious misconduct, perhaps scientists and professors will take notice and be more careful to clean up their acts.

  5. #5 AK
    July 5, 2006

    I’m pretty sure that sentencing “a year and a day” has to do with facilitating leniency – i.e. it permits things like credit for time served, early parole or suspended sentence for first offenses and/or good behavior, etc. If 366 days seems harsh, don’t feel bad. It’s unlikely he’ll serve the entire sentence.