Falsify Data, Go to Jail

The New York Times Magazine this week has a troubling story of scientific misconduct, involving the fraudulent research of Eric Poehlman:

Before his fall from grace, Poehlman oversaw a lab where nearly a dozen students and postdoctoral researchers carried out his projects. His research earned him recognition among his peers and invitations to speak at conferences around the world. And he made nearly $140,000, one of the top salaries at the University of Vermont. All of that began to change six years ago, when [Walter] DeNino [a technician in Poehlman’s lab] took his concerns about anomalies in Poehlman’s data to university officials. The subsequent investigation — a collaboration among the University of Vermont, the Office of Research Integrity (which is within the Department of Health and Human Services) and the United States Department of Justice — uncovered fraudulent research that stretched back through almost half of Poehlman’s career. The revelations led to the retraction or correction of 10 scientific papers, and Poehlman was banned forever from receiving public research money. He was only the second scientist in the United States to face criminal prosecution for falsifying research data.

At 50, with his career in ruins and his reputation destroyed, Poehlman could only hope to avoid one final humiliation: becoming the first researcher sentenced to prison for scientific misconduct. Citing the nearly $200,000 Poehlman had paid in restitution, his attorneys had asked the judge to sentence him to supervised probation. “I am hoping that you can consider this sentence fair and just to me, as well as the community,” Poehlman pleaded, without “a sentence of incarceration or imprisonment.”

Cases of research fraud on this scale are thankfully very rare, but what Poehlman did is a black mark on all of science. The story lays out all the particulars, and is particularly good at describing the wrenching process DeNino went through in determining that the data were fraudulent, and finally deciding to set the investigation in motion. It was the right thing to do, but it took guts, and he should be applauded.

Comments

  1. #1 Julie Stahlhut
    October 22, 2006

    It’s a sad story, to be sure, but Poehlman deserves both the prison time and the lifetime funding ban. He submitted fraudulent manuscripts and grant applications (inexcusable), knowingly wasted public funds (inexcusable), intimidated employees and junior colleagues (inexcusable), and contaminated the literature with false statements that could compromise medical advice and practice (so far beyond the pale that not even “inexcusable” can do it justice).

    I’m also glad to hear that Walter DeNino made it through the experience and is now in graduate school. He saved more public funds from being poured down a rathole, he spared other researchers a lot of wasted time, and he may even have saved some lives in the process.

  2. #2 PhysioProf
    October 22, 2006

    I found it interesting that DeNino does not believe Poehlman’s claims of contrition made at his sentencing hearing. I intend to forward the NYTimes article to all of my trainees.

  3. #3 Bill Hooker
    October 22, 2006

    I disagree about prison time. My wife works in the justice dept, and from even that much of an inside view I tend to see prison as a last resort. I’d rather see this guy, like other white collar criminals, spend ten years with an ankle collar and a public service job. He’s a crook but he presumably does have contacts, experience and education that could be put to good use. He could live in a modest apartment and be paid only pocket money, the rest of his salary being cashiered as restitution. That way he pays for his own upkeep rather than being another burden on the already-bursting-at-the-seams prison system. It doesn’t, after all, seem as though he’s a physical danger to anyone.

  4. #4 Bill Hooker
    October 22, 2006

    DeNino does not believe Poehlman’s claims of contrition

    That rather highlights the flaw in my plan. You need to find a job where you don’t have to trust the bastard, seeing as how you can’t.

  5. #5 PhysioProf
    October 23, 2006

    “It doesn’t, after all, seem as though he’s a physical danger to anyone.”

    Maybe not now, but he sure was when he was faking clinical research data.

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