Thomas R. O'Donnell

ISU scandal a science failure? Not so much

In University research on December 31, 2013 at 1:38 pm

In this blog, I usually highlight Iowa science developments that don’t get a lot of attention. If something is splashed across the headlines, I’ll generally let it go or say little about it. I want to concentrate on things most of the press misses.

What happened at Iowa State University just before Christmas, however, is too big and unusual to let pass: A federal agency announced sanctions against a professor for falsifying research.

The nature of the case and what it gained the offender are unusual. Since the offiense was revealed, bloggers and commentators also have cited it to support their views on everything from vaccinations to climate change.

I won’t go into every detail; my friend Tony Leys covers it well in the Des Moines Register. In brief, Dong-Pyou Han, an assistant professor of biomedical sciences, admitted doping samples of rabbit blood with human antibodies to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The rabbits had been treated with a protein the ISU researchers were investigating as an AIDS vaccine and the results made it appear the protein was effective.

Han was part of a group headed by Michael Cho, a biomedical sciences researcher in the College of Veterinary Medicine. An ISU Foundation YouTube video (above) details how the university lured Cho away from Case Western Reserve University in 2009 with a faculty chair endowed by veterinarian W. Eugene Lloyd and his wife, Linda Lloyd.

Han, who worked with Cho at Case Western and came along to Iowa, may be one of the smiling folks wearing a lab coat in the video. The Register story says Han worked with Cho for 15 years before coming to ISU, so he’s not one of the eager young graduate students.

Cho and his collaborators have garnered about $19 million in multiyear government research grants, including about $10 million after they announced the attention-getting results from the spiked blood.

ISU uncovered the fraud and reported it to federal agencies. Han admitted his actions and resigned in October. In a voluntary agreement with the Office of Research Integrity at the Department of Health and Human Services, Han agreed to exclude himself from participating in government research contracts for three years, starting Nov. 25. ORI posted the announcement on Dec. 23.

ISU and ORI absolved Cho of any involvement. In a follow-up story, he complained that Han’s deception led him and his colleagues to pursue a dead end.

The Retraction Watch blog, famed among science journalists for tracking falsified and bungled research results, wrote about the ISU fraud. Leys quotes blog founder Ivan Oransky as saying the three-year exclusion is an “unusually strong” penalty for a scientist.

Some online commenters on the Register article disagree. “Prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law,” said one. “A THREE year ban is ‘unusually strong?’ Pathetic,” another said.

Others have suggested ISU return the research grants it received, but there’s a big problem with that. The money went not just to Iowa State, but also to several collaborating universities. A poster abstract about Han’s “discovery” lists coauthors at Duke and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University. In a 2010 online newsletter, Cho describes National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease grants involving four institutions besides ISU – including the University of Iowa.

By all accounts, Han acted alone. Making other institutions repay the money would be difficult, if not impossible – not to mention unfair. It would punish them for the actions of a single researcher at another university.

What many people may not know, too, is that grants don’t just pay salaries and buy lab coats and test tubes. All universities and research institutions receive a cut off the top for overhead – ostensibly to pay the electric bill and other costs involved in maintaining campus labs. Overhead is one way universities support their massive education and research infrastructures. Try getting that money back.

The first indicator that the results were bogus came when researchers outside ISU couldn’t replicate them. No one has identified those other labs, but I would bet they were collaborators on the project. They labs would be the first to try the experiments as they worked on understanding Han’s results and expanding on them.

Although such cases are rare, all this doesn’t mean Han won’t be criminally prosecuted – unless he received immunity as part of the deal to resign and take the federal sanctions. In any event, it’s unlikely he’ll ever work in science again.

Meanwhile, right-wing fringe elements and conspiracy theorists are citing Han’s case to prove that science is packed with charlatans out to advance evolutionist, climate change, and vaccination industry agendas. If one scientist is cheating, they figure, there must be many more, calling into question all research – especially studies they disagree with.

Of course, if this was a big conspiracy, it doesn’t make sense that scientists would turn in one of their own. I’m not saying institutions and researchers have always acted honorably, but it appears ISU did in this case. I might fault the university for failing to get out in front of the issue by acknowledging the fraud (there’s still, to my knowledge, no generally disseminated, ISU-issued announcement or statement on the matter), but that’s not unexpected.

No, this isn’t a case of science failing, despite the claims of climate change deniers and anti-vaccination forces. Science worked the way it’s supposed to – others couldn’t replicate Han’s results, calling them into question. A Register editorial is right on that point.

The fact is, science fails far more than it succeeds. Few of those failures make it into the research literature. Each unsuccessful experiment, however, leads us closer to the truth, to cures, and to a brighter future.

Was Han’s punishment enough? Should he be prosecuted? And should the institutions involved pay back at least some of what was granted based on the fake results? Give me your reaction.

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  1. It is disturbing to find out that a scientist has falsified results, not only because it led to large research grants but because of the doubt it creates about scientific research in general. But one has to ask how Han ever expected to get away with it. As pointed out in the blog, all scientific research is constantly reviewed and tested. That is the very nature of scientific inquiry. Indeed, the questioning of every published result, the adjustment of theory and even the rejection of a theory that results in a new scientific endeavor all stem from this scrutiny. It is why a scientific theory is not, as so many science detractors claim, “just a theory.” The theory of evolution, for example, has undergone constant review and revision as new information has been discovered. While there may be disagreement in the scientific community as to exactly how evolution works there is virtually no disagreement that it does work. Han must have known from the very beginning that he would eventually be discovered. I think that the story of why he attempted this fraud and how he rationalized it would be fascinating.

  2. […] back to me, given the skeleton staff ISU maintains during semester break, so I went ahead with the post, which raised questions about what kind of a deal Han may have reached to settle charges that he […]

  3. […] earlier posts covered reaction to Han’s misconduct (which he admitted to), examined whether there are criminal implications, and […]

  4. […] I’ve written before, the scandal came to light not through a police or federal agency investigation, but through the […]

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