Should Scientific Fraud Be Treated As A Crime?

March 23, 2014

(PRINCIPIA SCIENTIFIC) Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa — known for his tough questions for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — wants to know why a former researcher at Iowa State University wasn’t prosecuted more vigorously after he was found to have deliberately spiked rabbit blood samples in a federally-funded HIV vaccine study.

Dr. Dong-Pyou Han

As Tony Leys of the Des Moines Register reports in a pointed letter, the Iowa Republican asked why the culprit, Dong-Pyou Han, only received a three-year ban from participating in federally financed research.

“This seems like a very light penalty for a doctor who purposely tampered with a research trial and directly caused millions of taxpayer dollars to be wasted on fraudulent studies,” Grassley wrote to a senior official of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Grassley asked:

“[W]hether federal administrators have ever tried to recover grant money in such a case. He also asked whether research supervisors are ever held accountable for scientific misconduct by their underlings. Has ORI referred the information about Dr. Han’s fraud to any other government agency for further inquiry?” the senator asked. “If so, please provide the name of the agency or agencies and the date of the referral(s). If there were no referrals, please explain why not.”

The case has led to one retraction so far. As Retraction Watch readers know, fines and criminal penalties for scientific fraud are quite rare. In fact, most ORI sanctions don’t even include outright bans on funding such as the one Han received. Just two of eleven cases reported by the ORI in 2013 resulted in such bans.

We asked whether scientific fraud should be considered a crime — and prosecuted that way — in December, prompted by a series of stories in Nature journals. We also looked at the issue in our most recent Lab Times column, picking up on those stories and others as well as a post by former BMJ editor Richard Smith.