Like politicians, scientific researchers play fast and loose with facts

In November, University of Pittsburgh reproductive biologist Gerald P. Schatten found himself entangled in an investigation of scientific misconduct along with a stem-cell research collaborator in South Korea.

Renowned Korean researcher Hwang Woo-suk admitted manipulating laboratory samples to create fake DNA results for a paper _ co-authored by Dr. Schatten _ that claimed to have succeeded in embryonic stem-cell cloning.

The fraud staggered the worldwide scientific community because it occurred in the high-profile discipline of stem-cell research and involved Hwang, who carried the title of Supreme Scientist in Korea and was head of the world’s leading stem cell research center.

But while the breadth of that case was unusual, the occurrence of scientific research misconduct is not.

A recent survey by HealthPartners Research Foundation in Minneapolis, Minn., of more than 3,400 early- and mid-level U.S. scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health showed that more than one-third of them admitted research wrongdoings between 2002 and 2005.

Only 1.5 percent of them admitted to the most serious misconduct of falsification or plagiarism.

And last year, the federal Office of Research Integrity in the Department of Health and Human Services received about 300 allegations of research misconduct last year, double the number from 2003.

Cheating, of course, occurs in all fields. But scientists and researchers?

“The temptations are huge,” said Paul D. Tate, senior scholar in residence at the Council of Graduate Schools and director of its Responsible Conduct of Research initiative.

At a research lab where no one is looking over shoulders, a scientist who ignores anomalous results can produce career-boosting work.

“At the cutting edge of science,” Tate said, “the rewards are huge and the temptation is greater.”

Such was the case with Hwang. As first recipient of the title Supreme Scientist, he received $15 million from his government. That was in addition to about $27 million in international funding support he secured in 2005. His online fan club had 15,000 members.

Ethicists point to various reasons for cheating in the scientific community, among them mental illness, the unfamiliarity of foreign nationals with American research ethics, pressure to publish and the lackluster teaching of ethics in graduate schools.

Sometimes, researchers can be swept up in the misconduct of others or simply make missteps.

Schatten’s case shows that the pressure to move forward on high-profile projects, combined with the difficulty of keeping track of research involving multiple teams in disparate locations, can make it difficult to steer clear of ethical lapses.

Schatten, who is director of the Pittsburgh Development Center and Magee-Womens Research Institute, was involved in laboratory-related misconduct investigations at both his previous university jobs prior to arriving at Pitt in mid-2001.

The first involved misappropriated eggs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during 1993-94. Schatten, then a professor of zoology, molecular biology, and obstetrics and gynecology, used eggs for research that later were discovered to have been obtained illegally by a University of California-Irvine fertility clinic, from women without their consent.

In that case, two University of California-Irvine physicians were charged by the federal government with mail fraud and conspiracy to defraud patients of their genetic material. Both fled the United States. A third UC-Irvine physician was convicted in 1998 of fraudulently billing insurance companies; he was fined $64,000 and sentenced to three years probation.

Additionally, more than 100 couples were paid nearly $20 million to settle their cases.

As far as Schatten’s involvement, a University of Wisconsin investigation determined that he “unintentionally” received the misappropriated eggs.

“Jerry was very thoroughly investigated,” said Alta Charo, a professor of law and medical ethics at Wisconsin and a member of the university team that investigated Schatten at the time.

“He did receive written documents that purported to be consent forms … and relied upon those and had provided those to the appropriate oversight bodies.”

Schatten left Wisconsin in 1998 for the Oregon National Primate Research Center, where he was research director of the Center for Women’s Health, and a professor of obstetrics and gynecology, and cell and developmental biology.

There, he directed the researchers who in early 2001 produced the world’s first genetically modified nonhuman primate, a transgenic monkey.

Later that year, the center’s Institutional Biosafety Committee investigated Schatten for three “miscommunications” that included a misstatement to the committee about his research work. All three issues were remedied “in a relatively short period of time,” a research center spokesman said.

“They were fairly minor issues,” said the spokesman, Jim Newman. “However, if they were not addressed so quickly, they would have been more serious issues.”

Schatten has refused public comment since it was first reported in November that Hwang had fabricated data on the cloning of patient-specific stem cells. A Pitt inquiry last month concluded Schatten did not intentionally falsify stem-cell research information described in a paper that appeared last year in the journal Science. The article has since been retracted.

The committee did chide Schatten for his lack of judgment in allowing his listing as senior author of the discredited paper and recommended the university “implement whatever corrective or disciplinary actions are commensurate with (Schatten’s) research misbehavior.”

Such actions would be at the discretion of Arthur Levine, senior vice chancellor of health sciences, and would be kept confidential.

Ethicists disagree about the best way to prevent scientific cheating. Robert P. George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, believes it’s a character issue.

“You won’t prevent this kind of thing by simply making people more knowledgeable about the rules,” he said.

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