Thomas R. O'Donnell

Posts Tagged ‘Des Moines Register’

Forget the big boar. Pin down some candidates on science at the Iowa State Fair

In Government, STEM on August 8, 2018 at 2:25 pm
Jeb! Bush speaks at The Des Moines Register's political soapbox at the 2016 Iowa State Fair. Credit: Zach Boyden-Holmes,The Des Moines Register

Jeb! Bush speaks at The Des Moines Register’s political soapbox at the 2016 Iowa State Fair. Credit: Zach Boyden-Holmes, The Des Moines Register

When it comes to science, Iowa politicians are largely blank slates. Most have only made vague statements about supporting science, protecting natural resources or balancing agriculture and the environment. Few have laid out actual policies on science and issues in which knowledge and evidence play major roles.

The March for Science Iowa group, with which I volunteer, is changing that. We’ve emailed questionnaires to candidates for Congress, governor and secretaries of agriculture and state.

Yes, there are still nearly three months left before the election, but the response has been … nonexistent. A few have acknowledged receiving the email, but no one has provided answers. I’m hoping that within a few weeks we’ll get replies.

In the meantime, we each have opportunities to get answers on our own – while also enjoying a corndog or other food-on-a-stick.

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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?

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The Des Moines Register catches up on the Next Generation Science Standards: a critique

In STEM on May 6, 2015 at 7:05 am
Cover of Science Comics, April 1939, via the Digital Comics Museum.

Science Comics, April 1939, via the Digital Comics Museum.

It’s taken months, but the Des Moines Register finally caught up with deliberations over Iowa’s adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

On Sunday, reporter Mackenzie Ryan did a big takeout on the Iowa Department of Education (IDE) study of the standards, which would replace the current Iowa Core standards in science. It ran across the top of the front page – and as a former Register reporter, I will say you can’t do better than lead the Sunday paper, which has the biggest circulation of any day of the week.

There’s even a video on line of Ryan discussing the story and visiting a West Des Moines engineering class. (The class has more to do with Project Lead the Way, an initiative to coax more students into engineering, than with the NGSS, but never mind.)

So the Register focused a lot of attention on the issue – one that your faithful correspondent and others have reported on for months. That fact, and the fact that it was a rather weak story (as I’ll detail below), has me scratching my head about why editors thought it deserved such prominent play. Perhaps there wasn’t anything better to run.

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ISU research fraud probe staked out faked results

In Uncategorized on January 27, 2014 at 1:05 pm
Lactobacillus casei

Lactobacillus casei, a strain of bacterium similar to what Michael Cho and colleagues have engineered to express proteins in the hope of sparking an immune response to HIV. AJC1 via photopin cc

The investigation into faked AIDS vaccine tests “followed an atypical path compared to most research misconduct cases,” an Iowa State University administrator wrote in a report last October.

The case “began with proof of research misconduct and only after considerable effort was the responsible party identified,” Charlotte Bronson, Iowa State University’s associate vice president for research and research integrity officer. Multiple researchers handled samples that later proved questionable. The research also hadn’t been published, at which point other scientists may have questioned the results.

The investigation, which led ISU scientist Dong-Pyou Han to resign, played out over nearly 10 months, starting a year ago this week. It actually began at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where Han and the leader of his lab group, Michael Cho, worked before Iowa State recruited Cho.

The investigation exonerated Cho and other members of his lab, but it doesn’t erase their embarrassment and chagrin at having pursued a dead lead – and at facing questions about the federal financing that supported the research.

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Documents hint at rationale for ISU fraud

In University research on January 21, 2014 at 2:11 pm
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 membrane. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The saga of Dong-Pyou Han and his research misconduct continues.

Late last week, Iowa State University responded to my request for a report the university sent to the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The documents include Han’s signed admission of how he spiked blood samples to make it appear rabbits developed antibodies to HIV, the AIDS virus.

Michael Cho, the project’s lead researcher, reported the suspected misconduct one year ago this week, and after an investigation stretching into August, pegged Han as the likely culprit. He resigned in October.

Han is the only researcher suspected in the fraud.

The Des Moines Register’s Tony Leys also received the documents – including emails concerning the investigation, which I did not request – and wrote a piece Thursday night. Another piece on Friday quotes Arthur Caplan, the go-to source when journalists need a comment on bioethics.

Leys’ initial story covers Han’s grammatically clumsy mea culpa but omits many details – including what appears to be his rationale for the whole fraud.

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Iowa State vaccine research scandal: an update

In University research on January 6, 2014 at 1:01 pm

Office of Research Integrity logoAt the time I wrote my last entry, about Iowa State University researcher Dong-Pyou Han’s admitted research misconduct, I had an email seeking additional information out to ISU spokesman John McCarroll.

I wasn’t sure how soon McCarroll would get 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 tampered with research for an AIDS vaccine.

McCarroll’s response, just before New Year’s Day, sheds some light on those questions – but not much.

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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.

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Snail episode illustrates science news’ slow crawl

In Uncategorized, University research on April 22, 2013 at 5:36 pm
snail dime

The tiny shells of the New Zealand mud snail. U.S. Geological Survey photo.

Since I posted it about a week ago, more than 2,000 visitors have read my report on the conservative criticism directed at University of Iowa professors Maurine Neiman and John Logsdon. Along with Jeffrey Boore at the University of California, Berkeley, they study the genetic makeup of two genetic lines of a New Zealand snail, one of which reproduces sexually and the other asexually.

Their goal is to elucidate the genetic foundation for sexual reproduction. But conservative websites, bloggers and pundits from Michelle Malkin to Fox News blasted the four-year, National Science Foundation grant as a waste of tax money for studying “snail sex.” The big number of hits (thanks in large part to Logsdon and Neiman spreading the word) indicates how interested people are in the intersection of science, government and politics.

What’s surprising is how big this was on conservative media, but how other press – even Iowa news operations – missed the story. Read the rest of this entry »

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