Thomas R. O'Donnell

ISU AIDS research fraud: the denouement

In University research on July 2, 2015 at 8:38 am
Graphic of the HIV virus structure

In this schematic of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the glycoproteins gp41 and gp120 are the base and tip, respectively, of the “spikes” protruding from the virus membrane.

Another quick post to note the final outcome of a case I wrote about frequently last year: Iowa State University researcher Dong-Pyou Han’s admission that he faked AIDS research lab results.

The Des Moines Register’s Tony Leys offers a wrapup of Han’s sentencing: nearly five years in prison and repayment of $7.2 million in fraudulently gained federal grants. The experts Leys consulted noted the penalty’s unusual stiffness and its ramifications. U.S. District Judge James Gritzner essentially put researchers on notice that academic misconduct has consequences. It remains to be seen whether the sentence actually inhibits other scientists from cheating, and we may never know if it does.

As I’ve written before, the scandal came to light not through a police or federal agency investigation, but through the self-checks built into research: Suspicions first were raised when other scientists failed to duplicate the ISU team’s results. That’s how the system is supposed to work. Maybe it doesn’t always succeed and some bad science and fraud slips through, but that’s true everywhere: How many crimes go undetected and unpunished every day – even crimes on this scale, with millions of dollars at stake?

For more background, read my other posts here, here and here.

I think it’s unlikely Han will serve the entire four years and nine months of his sentence. He’s almost certain to be paroled or released early with time off for good behavior. EDIT: Leys informs me that there is no parole in the federal system. While commenters on Leys’ story above have said Han will be jailed with rapists and murderers, it’s more likely he’ll serve with embezzlers and forgers in a minimum-security prison. He just doesn’t pose a threat to the public’s safety.

After his release, he’ll be deported to his native South Korea, where perhaps he can get a teaching job. It’s unlikely he’ll ever work in research again and even more unlikely he’ll repay more than a minuscule fraction of his $7.2 million penalty.

Han has admitted his guilt. He’s set back the research plans of his boss, Michael Cho, and led other scientists to expend precious research dollars pursuing a bad lead. The consequences for his own life, however, also are devastating. It’s a tragedy all around.

Perhaps that is enough, after all, to discourage others from faking results.

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