ERC on Susana González’ suspended €2Mio grant: peer reviewers to spot manipulations

Spain is rocked by two misconduct scandals involving biomedical researchers Sonia Melo and Susana González. The latter has been sacked from her job as group leader at the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Cardiovasculares (CNIC), after an internal investigation revealed serious “irregularities”, as El País reported. First concerns about data integrity in Gonzalez’ papers were posted on PubPeer and PubMed Commons as early as 2013, followed by further discoveries of suspicious image duplications like these:

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Gonzalez did her postdoctoral studies in the lab of the world renowned cancer researcher Manuel Serrano. Some of their common publications are hit with accusations of image manipulations, like this Nature 2006 paper where Serrano was last author:

 

According to El País journalist Manuel Ansede, Serrano was not available for a comment.

Now, as El País  announced,  the European Research Council (ERC) has suspended the €1.86 Mio Consolidator Grant to Gonzalez, which was awarded in 2014 for her YOUNGatHEART research project. It was about “cardiac rejuvenation by epigenetic remodelling” and supposed to run until November 1st, 2020. The ERC spokesman told El País  that the grant has been suspended because Gonzalez lost her job,  and that “it is too early to speculate on the future (termination, restitution or transfer of the funding to another institution).

This is why I decided to contact the ERC Vice-president, Núria Sebastián Gallés, about the future of Gonzalez grant, and whether ERC noticed or was even alerted to the publicly available data integrity issues of Gonzalez’ publications.

I received the following reply from the ERC press team:

“The ERC is in the course of assessing this case, and at this stage we have nothing more to add. At the same time we’d like to assure you that tax payers’ money is safe. The ERC has paid so far the €372,382 to Dr Gonzalez’s host institution and this pre-financing remains the property of the ERC until the end of the project. All ineligible costs can be recovered, depending on the outcome of ERC assessment of this case.

Regarding your question about how the ERC double-checks grant applicants and their proposals, the ERC uses international peer review system to assess grant applications. It is one of the most advanced and trustful systems for selection of scientific ideas.  Cases of scientific misconduct such as fabrication, falsification, plagiarism or misrepresentation of data that may arise during the evaluation or throughout the life cycle of an ERC funded project are addressed vigorously by the ERC within the applicable legal and procedural framework. Any breach of research integrity by Principal Investigators or beneficiaries may be sanctioned by measures such as the rejection of proposals from evaluation, requests for measures to be taken by the host institution, reduction of the grant and suspension or termination of grants. 

You can read more about ERC policy on research integrity in our Work Programme (p. 11  https://erc.europa.eu/sites/default/files/document/file/ERC_Work_Programme_2016.pdf) and  on the page of the ERC Standing Committee on Conflict of Interests, Scientific Misconduct and Ethical Issueshttps://erc.europa.eu/about-erc/organisation-and-working-groups/standing-committees/Conflict-of-Interests-Scientific-Misconduct-and-Ethical-Issues. “

I understand from it that ERC relies of the academic peer reviewers, and not professional image analysts, to address the issues of publication figure integrity, an approach which may have its weak points.

Unfortunately, ERC chose not to share any information whether they were ever aware of any irregularities in Gonzalez’ papers at all, i.e., until CNIC investigation and her recent sacking.

Therefore, I welcome any information if ERC was ever directly alerted to the Gonzalez’ data integrity issues, and how and if they replied to such notifications.


 

Update 3.05.2016. ERC is still deciding what to do with Gonzalez suspended grant, as I was informed today by the ERC press team:

“Dr Gonzalez’s grant is still suspended. Both the Integrity Standing Committee of the ERC Executive Agency, and the Scientific Council’s Standing Committee on Conflict of Interest, Scientific Misconduct and Ethics are currently dealing with this case”.

Update 8.06.2016 ERC has announced today to me that Gonzalez case is being investigated and that her ERC grant remains suspended, apparently very unlikely to be given back to her:

“The grant is still suspended. The case is being reviewed by the ERCEA’s Integrity Standing Committee (ISC) and Scientific Council’s Standing Committee on Conflict of Interest, Scientific Misconduct and Ethical Issues (CoIME).   

Although there is no legal limit for how long a project can remain suspended, the ERCEA reviews all suspensions regularly. In any case,  after a  suspension a project has to be reinstated to continue, and in such a case, there is always a review to judge its continued scientific relevance”.

Vicente Andrés, head of basic research at CNIC, where Gonzalez was sacked (which in turn led to suspension of her ERC grant), previously declined to share further information with me:

“Please note that the content of the investigation our Institution has done contains confidential information affecting constitutional rights of Dr. Gonzalez that we must respect. Confidentiality also affects the reasons for the dismissal”.

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