Olivier Voinnet loses EMBO Gold Medal, Sonia Melo investigated by EMBO

News piece:

The former star plant scientist Olivier Voinnet, currently professor at the Swiss elite university ETH Zürich has now had the most prestigious award bestowed by the European life science research society EMBO, the EMBO Gold medal, revoked. Prior to this, he admitted misconduct and data manipulation in dozens of his papers, seven of which were retracted. His funding by the Swiss National Fund was frozen and he was banned from further funding for 3 years.

voinnet(http://2010.the-embo-meeting.org/award.html)

Below the announcement of EMBO director Maria Leptin, sent out to EMBO members on January 28th, 2016:

“Olivier Voinnet received the EMBO Gold Medal in 2009. The Medal is awarded annually to young scientists for outstanding contributions to the life sciences in Europe.

Recent investigations following concerns about data manipulation in Olivier Voinnet’s publications have resulted in the retraction of several papers and the correction of others of which he is an author. To ensure that the prestige of the EMBO Gold Medal and the reputation of science more generally are maintained, EMBO Council at its 2015 annual meeting set up a committee to assess the allegations of data manipulation in Olivier Voinnet’s publications, and based on this assessment to determine what actions to take.

The committee consisted of the current and two former Secretaries General of EMBO: Paul Nurse, Anton Berns, and Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard. I was present as an observer at the committee.

In addition to considering the allegations concerning Olivier Voinnet’s publications that are already in the public domain, the committee carried out an independent investigation, focusing on the papers submitted as part of the nomination for the Gold Medal. The investigation identified a number of further cases of data manipulation in these publications in addition to those already discussed in the public domain, corrigenda and journal retraction notes.

The committee concluded that the manipulation of data in the publications authored by Voinnet was unacceptable for the proper reporting of research and devalued both science in general and the Gold Medal in particular. The committee therefore decided that EMBO would revoke its award of the Gold Medal to Olivier Voinnet.

This decision was communicated to Olivier Voinnet, who recognized the importance of protecting the integrity of scientific research and agreed to return the Medal.

Best regards,

Maria Leptin

Prof. Maria Leptin
Director, EMBO”


In other developments, the cancer researcher and  EMBO Young investigator Sonia Melo had to retract a publication (Melo et al, Nature Genetics (2009) A TARBP2 mutation in human cancer impairs microRNA processing and DICER1 function ).
The retraction note says:
“We have recently become aware of the presence of duplicated images in the Figures 3 and 4 and Supplementary Figures 5 and 6 in our publication Nat. Genet. 41, 365–370, 2009, that were assembled according to the specified author contributions. We therefore retract the publication for the sake of the high standards we expect for research and scientific journals. All the authors have signed this statement”.
Melo’s case is now being investigated, as EMBO Director Leptin wrote to me:
“I confirm that EMBO is taking the matter seriously and has set up its own committee to investigate the allegations, paying particular attention to those papers that formed the basis for Sonia Melo’s application for an installation grant. EMBO will make a decision once a comprehensive and careful investigation has been carried out. And, as usual, until our investigations are completed, we will refrain from commenting publicly”.
I have received no information from Melo’s research host institution, Institute of Molecular Pathology and Immunology of the University of Porto (Ipatimup), despite my best attempts to contact by email the members of the scientific directorate there, namely Prof. Sobrinho Simões, Prof. José Carlos Machado and Prof. Raquel Seruca. All emails went unanswered. Official contact person, Prof Fátima Gärtner declared herself not responsible.
It is not clear which papers exactly served as basis of Melo’ s proposal for EMBO funding. To this, Leptin stated:
“all the committee files on the selection of grantees, including the proposal, are confidential”.

17 thoughts on “Olivier Voinnet loses EMBO Gold Medal, Sonia Melo investigated by EMBO

  1. The damage done to plant science by Voinnet is irreparable. Stripping him of his prizes, his positions, his salary, his grants and his PhD title would be the only way to resolve the state of disgrace this individual, and perhaps others in his group, have brought to the image of plant science.

    It is absolutely essential for every single scientist who was ever involved with Voinnet to distance themselves from him publicly now. Otherwise, the message that they will be sending is that they support research fraud. The message sent to the entire plant science community must be clear, and unequivocal.

    Such prizes include (non-exhaustive list):
    Amersham Biosciences and Science Prize (year unknown)
    EMBO Young Investigator award (2004)
    Starting Independent Researcher Grant (European Research Council) (2008)
    EMBO Gold Medal (2009)
    Rössler Prize (2013)

    How much money was wasted on symposia and congresses presenting faulty science? How do Swiss, French and global plant science communities get justice from such an injustice to science?

    Reading some comments from this 2009 piece at Science by Elizabeth Pain brings chills to my spine.

    http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2009_05_29/caredit.a0900071

    Some quotes:

    “Many of us were very surprised that the work that he did didn’t earn a share of the Nobel Prize.” –Timothy Hunt.

    By the time Voinnet obtained his Ph.D., he had published 13 papers, half of them in top journals. He had also “established the existence of a systemic signal of silencing and the notion that most if not all plant viruses produce suppressors of silencing,” Baulcombe writes. “This work has really changed plant virology, had a broad impact in plant biology, and influence[d] thinking more generally about silencing.”

    But Voinnet, Baulcombe writes, also showed “hard work and [the] ability to focus on the important scientific issues to the exclusion of everything else, including the real world.”

    That year, he was a winner of the Amersham Biosciences and Science Prize in an essay competition. In 2004, he obtained a Young Investigator award from the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO). He received a Starting Independent Researcher Grant last year from the European Research Council. And this year, he won the EMBO Gold Medal…

    Voinnet says. “You’re not there just to make papers. You’re there also to bring the next generation on the way to be as good, if not much better, than you.”

    Voinnet has one big weakness, his colleagues say. “He was well known for filling a bench/desk/glasshouse space with debris from one experiment and then moving on to another … clear area for the next. When he left we isolate[d] new species of fungus from some of the stuff that he left behind,” Baulcombe jokes. Still, “I think his skill as an experimentalist was one of his greatest strengths,” Hamilton says.

    Voinnet returned to France at the end of 2002, and he’s won many accolades since. That year, he was a winner of the Amersham Biosciences and Science Prize in an essay competition. In 2004, he obtained a Young Investigator award from the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO). He received a Starting Independent Researcher Grant last year from the European Research Council. And this year, he won the EMBO Gold Medal for what EMBO Council Chair Timothy Hunt of the Cancer Research UK London Research Institute calls “a particularly distinguished piece of work. … It wasn’t straightforward thinking, it was putting one foot in front of the other, overturning stones, … the best definition of scientific research,” Hunt says. “Many of us were very surprised that the work that he did didn’t earn a share of the Nobel Prize” allocated to gene-silencing discoveries in 2006, Hunt adds.

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  2. “He was well known for filling a bench/desk/glasshouse space with debris from one experiment and then moving on to another … clear area for the next.” I am not surprised.

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  3. “The committee carried out an independent investigation, focusing on the papers submitted as part of the nomination for the Gold Medal… The investigation identified a number of further cases of data manipulation in these publications in addition to those already discussed in the public domain”

    I find this very fitting. Not content with faking data, he sought greater exposure by applying for a prize. He got it, but now that extra exposure has turned sour.

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    1. “The investigation identified a number of further cases of data manipulation in these publications in addition to those already discussed in the public domain”

      Is my interpretation of this statement correct? Does this mean that the investigative committee found other papers with problems that have not been highlighted at PubPeer? If so, surely the committee has the responsibility of making such reports public, or at least highlighting these “additional” problematic papers at PubPeer. This needs further investigation.

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  4. “The investigation identified a number of cases of data manipulation”

    Finally an official statement which highlights data manipulation. Champagne !

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  5. Sonia Melo’s and Raghu Kalluri’s paper in Nature (see point 3 https://forbetterscience.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/is-embo-knowingly-funding-misconduct/) is the basis of an $80 million investment into a biotech company Codiak Biosciences:

    “The initial focus of Codiak will be pancreatic cancer. It’s a notoriously tough-to-treat cancer, and it’s often diagnosed late in the game. People usually only have a few months to live after diagnosis. The company will seek to build on research Kalluri’s team published in Nature in June. At that time, Kalluri said his team had identified a proteoglycan (a protein covered with lots of carbohydrate molecules) called Glypican-1, which was present on the surface of exosomes”.

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/luketimmerman/2015/11/17/former-biogen-rd-chief-resurfaces-at-80m-startup-pursuing-pancreatic-cancer/
    http://www.codiakbio.com/news/2015/11/20/zt25zw0csa4t7k36sy3fyv9pcfklwr

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