Did you ever wonder why certain zombie scientists were still in academic jobs? Despite having been caught on data manipulation or biomedical ethics breach?

It seems the answer is simpler than you thought. They are paying for their protection, by giving pizzo to their crooked research institutions, just as in some unoriginal mafia film. Well, actually YOU are paying their pizzo, through your taxes, which in turn are awarded to these zombie scientists as public research funding, from the national, international and European funding agencies. In fact, the most prestigious and self-important European funding agency ERC is completely unprepared or maybe just unwilling to respond to evidence of research misconduct by their elite grant recipients.  

My understanding is provocative, and I may be utterly wrong. But absent of any reasonable alternative explanations, let us for a moment go with this one. I will provide you with examples where questionable European scientists surprisingly retained their European funding unquestioned (or even received fresh millions of Euros), and coincidently or not,  many institutions did not at all mind to keep them in their jobs.

Got funding

Olivier Voinnet

The plant scientist Olivier Voinnet, whose misconduct affair I have been following since it first popped up on PubPeer in winter 2014/2015, had to retract 7 papers and was allowed to replace manipulated data in a large number of other scientifically problematic publications (please refer for details of his Voinnetting-style corrections and of institutional attitudes to my earlier long-read articles, here and here). Among other calamities, Voinnet lost his research lab at his former CNRS institute in Strasbourg, his research money from the Swiss National Fund (SNF) and even saw his EMBO Gold Medal, awarded to him in 2009, withdrawn. Yet he remained full professor at the ETH Zürich in Switzerland. Why? Maybe this statement to me by the ERC will explain it:

“The 2012 ERC Advanced Grant awarded to Professor Olivier Voinnet for the project ‘Frontiers of RNAi-II’: “High resolution and chemical genetic approaches to RNA silencing mechanisms” is ongoing and hosted by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zürich (ETH Zürich)”.

We are talking about of €2.3 Million, with the funding period of July 2013 till June 2018, nothing to be sniffed at even in the wealthy Switzerland. Can this explain why in July 2015, with 3 more years of ERC funding to go, ETH decided that Voinnet did not commit any research fraud as such, despite his own admission to willful manipulation of figures in his papers (as soon came out, same manipulated figures were also used in his PhD thesis). Can the €2.3 Million from the sympathetic ERC explain why ETH decided to engage with Witold Filipowicz as one of Voinnet’s two external investigators the very scientist who nominated him for the EMBO Gold Medal and who received in April 2014 research funding and €10,000 personal salary for collaborating with Voinnet’s Strasbourg lab? I tried to raise these questions with ETH, but aside of acknowledgment of receipt, no reply was forthcoming.

The Voinnet lab at ETH is now all but defunct; it is very unlikely it spends much of that ERC money on research reagents or even salaries. What is more likely though, is that ETH put that money to good use elsewhere, and ERC doesn’t seem to mind.

Susana Gonzalez

This Spanish stem cell researcher was sacked in early 2016 from her group leader position at the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Cardiovasculares (CNIC) in Madrid, after an internal investigation with a secret outcome. Only a few months before she was awarded the ERC Consolidator Grant of €1.9 Million, for her regenerative medicine project “YOUNGatHEART: cardiac rejuvenation by epigenetic remodelling”. ERC was most obviously taken by surprise with Gonzalez’ sudden sacking and suspended the grant pending assessment (see my report here). Importantly, the EU funder decided not to terminate it, although it is reasonable to expect that ERC was privy to that CNIC investigative report, which most likely was not really about extolling Gonzalez’ scientific brilliance and integrity. Soon however, another public research institute in Madrid, the Centro de Biología Molecular Severo Ochoa (CBMSO) offered Gonzalez a new workplace as tenured researcher (see my other report here). To me, the institute’s director Jose de Celis explained that the unsackable Gonzalez was actually forced upon him by the Spanish research council Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC). The original whistle-blower told me something different though, therefore one wonders if de Celis personnel decision was instead based on the assumption that Gonzalez’ ERC grant could be reassigned to his institute.  Should this really happen, it will be however unlikely for disgraced Gonzalez to be allowed to use this recovered funding at her own discretion.

Pontus Boström

This Swedish diabetes researcher was caught faking data during his PhD thesis at the University of Gothenburg. He was forced to retract two meeting abstracts (his fraudulent paper manuscript was stopped before publication) and officially found guilty of research misconduct in early 2014 (see my detailed report here). At this time, Boström was already employed by the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm as group leader and funded by the ERC, all thanks to an irreproducible, artefactual and possibly also manipulated publication in Nature (Boström et al 2012), which boasted the discovery of a magic anti-obesity hormone.  The ERC grant of €2 Million was awarded for the further study of this (most likely non-existent) hormone ‘irisin’ and ran from January 2013 on. However, by December 2015 Karolinska and Boström decided to separate (it is not clear if he was sacked or not), and the once world-famous diabetes researcher became a mere general practitioner in Stockholm. The interesting point is, that despite the results of the Gothenburg investigation being publicly known, ERC made no move to re-evaluate their ongoing funding to Boström for almost 2 years. The funding would have continued happily until end of 2017, fraud notwithstanding.  An insider source told me that it was Boström himself who terminated his ERC grant, “perhaps forced by the department to step down”. When confronted with this information, ERC told me this:

“Karolinska Institute requested the termination of his ERC grant because the principal investigator moved to work in another location. Accordingly the grant was terminated with all the related follow up actions concluded, in accordance with the applicable contractual provisions.

Please note that 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 address vigorously any case of possible misconduct among ERC projects, according to the established procedures”.

Obviously, in the Boström case ERC saw no reason to investigate anything. The investigation was done for them anyway, by the University of Gothenburg. As the following example shows, what likely counted for ERC was that Boström was caught faking data BEFORE he received his ERC funding, which kind of makes it forgiveable.

Jacob Hanna

This Israeli stem cell researcher is anything but your typical zombie scientist, even if his research is known as not entirely kosher. Hanna is simply indestructible and seems to grow bolder despite data manipulations and reproducibility concerns surrounding his publications. This can only be possible thanks to elite Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, which apparently made it their goal to hide and silence any evidence against their group leader, which in turn can be only “justified” by the enormous amount of international funding Hanna brings to Weizmann (especially considering the tight research budget in Israel). One big chunk of cash is his ERC grant of €2 Million, for epigenetic cell reprogramming, which runs until October this year.

The reliability of Hanna’s research, either from his PhD studies with Ofer Mandelboim at the Hebrew University, from his postdoctoral research with Rudolf Jaenisch at the Whitehead Institute at MIT or from his own lab at Weizmann, has been questioned for years. At the end of 2014, Hanna was accused on PubPeer of heavy data manipulations in a number of his own publications (examples here, here and here). He and Mandelboim had to retract a paper in the Journal of Clinical Investigation (Hanna et al, 2004) due to image duplications. To counter the accusations of misconduct in his paper in Blood (Hanna et al 2005) the Weizmann group leader accused his “medical trainees”.   One would suspect that if a scientist was forced to retract one paper and to issue 10 corrections, an institutional investigation would have been in order. Not so with Hanna. Over Twitter, he refused to tell me if he ever was investigated by any of his employing institutions.

This is what ERC told me:

“According to our initial assessment, there are no serious issues related to the research carried out in his ERC project: the majority of the facts you listed are related to publications published before the start of the ERC grant, or are related to publications where additional information that did not modify the scientific conclusions was added.

Furthermore, we can confirm that for the time being the ERC executive agency is not doing any formal investigation related to the research integrity of Dr Yaqub Hanna and that we are not aware of any investigation being carried out by Weizmann Institute of Science”.

Yet who decided how serious the data integrity issues in Hanna’s papers are if there never was any investigation?

Hanna’s ex-PhD advisor and last author of the retracted paper Mandelboim never replied to my inquiry whether Hanna was ever investigated. Also the two deans of the two biomedical departments of the Weizmann Institute, Elior Peles and Zvi Livneh, remained silent. Most worryingly, the Ombudsman of Weizmann Institute, Doron Yonai, also refused to react to my emails, where I simply asked if Hanna was ever investigated by Weizmann. Yonai is the person whom junior researchers at Weizmann are supposed to contact with their suspicions of research misconduct. If he reacted with silence to my inquiries, how will he react to a hypothetical student of Hanna’s (or any other of several Weizmann’s scientists known for a questionable research integrity track record), if this student were to voice concerns about work practices in that lab? Keep silent and ignore the matter as well? Hand over the name of the little ratfink to his or her principal investigator to take care of?

It is safe to assume therefore Weizmann Institute indeed never investigated Hanna, at least not in any serious way. Also the Whitehead Institute stayed out of it, as Hanna’s ex-boss, the world-leading stem cell researcher Jaenisch told me:

“One paper published from my lab with Hanna had been questioned on PubPeer (CSC 4, 513, 2009) because of duplications of some panels. We corrected this in CSC. There has been no investigation by Whitehead“.

This is the Hanna et al 2009 paper in Cell Stem Cell, here the PubPeer evidence, and here are its two corrections of duplicated images (here and here). A third Erratum addressed Jaenisch’s originally omitted financial conflict of interest.

Update 17.01.2017. As a reader notified me below, Jacob Hanna was awarded a new grant by ERC at the end of 2016.

Omertá, but not always

Normally, a zombie scientist under the pizzo-dependent protection of the host institution must follow the omertá. They are supposed to stay under the radar and not to draw public attention to themselves. Eventually, their misdemeanors become forgotten and funding money resumes to flow. Some of these zombie scientists are in fact even explicitly prohibited from speaking to public. ETH issued and still maintains such a gag order towards Olivier Voinnet, possibly due to worries about the ERC and other funding Voinnet might still have or even gain in the future.  

The notorious immunologist Silvia Bulfone-Paus held onto her second professorship at the University of Manchester after being forced out of her main tenure in Germany following a dozen of retractions (see my report here). After the business-minded University of Manchester exonerated her, Bulfone-Paus regained trust and has recently obtained funding from the British charity Cancer Research UK.

Catherine Verfaillie is a Belgian stem cell researcher who allegedly discovered the pluripotency of bone marrow cells (on this peculiar area of science, including her own work, see my detailed report here). Verfaillie’s claims have long since been refuted and disproved, but are still out zombieing around, infecting research papers and damaging or even killing patients (as the Macchiarini scandal made obvious). The Belgian discoverer of the bone marrow magic had to retract a paper in Blood (Reyes et al 2001), but managed to save her main work in Nature (Jiang et al, 2002) thanks to a heavy correction of manipulated data. Everyone supposed Verfaillie kept quiet afterwards, and she did. She was hardly ever seen at regenerative medicine conferences. It is therefore not widely known that only two years later Verfaillie was awarded almost €10 Million Euro by the European Union for her Consortium project “Hepatic Microfluidic Bioreactor”. The EU funding ran between 2011 and 2015; Verfaillie’s employer Katholieke Universiteit (KU) Leuven was the consortium’s central hub and Verfaillie herself the coordinator. EU Commission magazine Research EU did an interview with Verfaillie on this topic in October 2015 (page 13-14 here). If you think her earlier scandal of irreproducible science and data manipulations was ever mentioned, think again.

Hanna however is different. He never kept the omertá, quite the opposite in fact. Since last year he has been enjoying anonymous PubPeer trolling of his stem cell competitors (predominantly his former colleagues from the Jaenisch lab, see my article here), whom he publicly accused of publishing irreproducible or fraudulent research. Recently, Hanna moved on to a full-out hybrid-warfare against his former mentor Jaenisch. Hybrid warfare, because Hanna now uses both, anonymous trolling on PubPeer and signed criticism on Twitter and PubMed. The details of this “public stem cell skirmish” can be read on Paul Knoepfler’s blog. Is Hanna playing a dangerous game against one of the most powerful researchers in the stem field here, or is there some grander strategy by his Weizmann Institute? All we can gather is: unethical behaviour of Hanna and his colleagues (more on this soon on my site) is tolerated at Weizmann, whatever the reasons.


Update: for a story of yet another ERC-funded cheater scientist, the DNA repair researcher Maria Fousteri, read here.
Update 2: one more example of an ERC-funded cheater, diabetes researcher Kathrin Maedler, and her whitewashing investigations here

27 thoughts on “Does ERC help cheaters pay protection money?

  1. Whilst ERC grants are personal, and initially portable, funding, it ultimately goes to the host institution. Where staff are employed, the funding is disposed off immediately to the extent that the salary needs to be covered for a funding period or a financial year. Any discontinuation of ERC funding would not harm your purported zombies, but the ECRs who have been hired to work in their labs. It would also simply not work for contractual reasons. You either don’t realise this or don’t care; you are making it sound as though the money is going into the zombies’ pockets who then buy themselves more time at their institutions.

    If your suggestion is that these grants should be rescinded immediately upon the slightest whiff of impropriety, what is your solution to the question of what happens to the staff, etc?

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    1. First of all, other funding agencies like EMBO did rescind start-up grants to dishonest scientists: https://forbetterscience.wordpress.com/2016/03/02/sonia-melo-loses-embo-yip-funding/
      Then, there is little point for junior scientists to continue their PhD or postdoc training (or even publish papers) with a dishonest mentor. Universities should be able to cough up some transition salaries in such cases, since they were so keen to recruit that cheater PI in the first place.

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    2. The answer to the question: Does ERC money helps cheaters? is exactly institutions will always protect cheaters because they want to keep ERC funding, even institutions will promote cheating in order to get funding.

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  2. This is not an unusual stance to take (i.e. “this is a shit place to do science, so you should be grateful for not having to stay here”). It disregards the fact that young researchers already have a limited ability to plan their lives suitably. Handcuffing their fate to a potentially dishonest PI is just adding insult to injury. It would be better (and morally preferable) for the institutions to get rid of the PI and accept responsibility for the ERC, shielding them from the fallout of the dishonesty and creating a space in which they can develop their careers without being tainted by the PI’s wrongful actions. In essence: as far as ERCs are concerned, it should be retail rules – you break it, you keep it.

    There is a desirable trend in higher education to connect ERC’s careers not to strong alpha male PIs but to the institution (e.g. graduate schools, etc). Your proposal seems to be a step backwards to the old tribal view of labs.

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    1. I actually think we are on the same page here. Graduate schools are my favourite model as well (but these people are not financially affected by a terminated grant to a PI).
      However, ERC funding is awarded personally for a defined project, you cannot just donate it to the university after the fraudster was sacked. Instead, ERC could indeed introduce transition salaries for junior researchers paid from those terminated grants (again, ideally I think the universities should be made to pay this)

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      1. The PI wins the grant and can change the host institution until the point where the Grant Agreement is signed. This is why successful ERC grant winners go university shopping (which is fair enough). Once the Grant Agreement is signed, it is a contract between the European Commission and the Beneficiaries. The Beneficiaries are the institutions, and no longer the PIs personally. This means that the contract essentially boils down to “Host Institution promises to host PI”, and “Commission promises to pay grant to Host Institution”. End of. From a contractual point of view, there is no donating going on here.

        The only aspect of the Model Grant Agreement for ERC grants that is interesting in the context of your blog piece is this: “Due to the key role of the PI, s/he cannot be replaced by any other researcher during the implementation of the action. Requests for amendments to change the PI will be rejected.” (section 2, p. 348 of the ERC MGA). This means either the institution keeps on the dodgy PI on order to get the full grant, or they sack the dodgy PI and lose the rest of the grant (i.e. the portion that hasn’t already been spent).

        Given that PhDs and technical staff in ERC funded groups usually have employment contracts that run the duration of the anticipated grant, the Host Institution will do SFA for the duration of the grant. They would, economically, shoot themselves in the foot if they sacked the PI as they would have to counterfincance the employment costs of the team until the end of the funding period from other tax payers’ money. Not to let the PI go until the grant runs out is therefore the only acceptable course of action for an economics-driven research institution.

        What we may need here is an agreement between funders and research institutions which indemnifies the research institutions against economic loss when they consider sacking dodgy PIs. That would allow swift action rather than the situation we have at the moment, which – for the reasons I have given – I fully understand and accept.

        Beware of easy answers to complex problems! 😉

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  3. @Citizen Science: the problem is that the money won by dishonest scientists is not available to other, honest scientists anymore. By not taking back the funding, you are rewarding the institution unwilling to act and the dishonest scientists like Voinnet. That you want to protect ECR scientists is good, but to what extent shouldn’t that be the responsibility of the host institute which failed to act?

    A bit of brainfarting:
    – the doping rules in sport (if only IOC wasn’t corrupt): bar dishonest scientists from all funding. They can get a “reduced” sentence if they voluntarily retract all papers, rescind all honours etc.
    – dishonest scientist kicked out, host institute responsible for hiring new PI. Until that is done, host institute barred from applying for ECR funding. That will ensure the duty of care.

    Same for journals. Any attempt not to fully retract papers with data fraud/manipulation should result in the journal being barred from PubMed and the IF-list. Then they will suddenly act a lot quicker and decisively.

    Yes, very harsh, but now it’s reverse. Fraud and dishonesty gets no punishment, many journals and institutions are more concerned with their own reputation than with honesty and integrity, and that will cost us all in the end.

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  4. It is sad but true: modern system in Academia is based on simple concept- good scientist is the one who brings money. I know several examples of fellows with almost zero research output who keep groups using EU money. How did they get these grants could be called puzzle if we did not knew too good how it actually works (friends are heavier than results). “Black hole” groups swallow enormous resourses and produce almost nothing while their host Institutions are happy to consume own share. Survival is above science.

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  5. @dutchscientist: Thank you for your ideas. Let me brainfart back:

    “the doping rules in sport (if only IOC wasn’t corrupt): bar dishonest scientists from all funding. They can get a “reduced” sentence if they voluntarily retract all papers, rescind all honours etc.” – Would we not have to establish some kind of science tribunal which works to the criminal standard of proof? Or expand current domestic legal norms to include scientific fraud? It is simply a fact that (a) it is very difficult indeed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that a scientist has deliberately acted dishonestly; and (b) the institutions currently charged with investigating their own (!) scientists are poorly placed to make these kinds of decisions. Either make scientific fraud a specific criminal offence and let the normal courts handle it, or establish a special tribunal for these cases which is independent, works on the principles of natural justice and passes enforceable judgments. Until then, any allegation of dishonesty (even if thought to be accurate by the employing institution) is prima facie legally irrelevant and cannot give rise to consequences which touch upon an individual’s legal rights. Sad fact.

    “dishonest scientist kicked out, host institute responsible for hiring new PI. Until that is done, host institute barred from applying for ECR funding. That will ensure the duty of care.” – Again, how and to what standard to we prove dishonesty? A block from funding, by a public body (such as the ERC), would be unlawful unless done on a legally sound basis. A mere allegation of dishonesty against an employee is not a legally sound basis. Forcing institutions into monitoring the specific activities of their hosted PIs is also a significant derogation from the principle of academic freedom – are you sure you want to open that can of worms?

    “Same for journals. Any attempt not to fully retract papers with data fraud/manipulation should result in the journal being barred from PubMed and the IF-list. Then they will suddenly act a lot quicker and decisively.” – Again, issues with an enforceable decision and academic freedom. What if there is a respectable body of scientific opinion that disagrees with the finding of dishonesty? We need an independent, final arbiter of scientific integrity in order to attach the harsh consequences you envisage to people’s behaviour. Otherwise science will turn into a lawless banana republic.

    Even those accused of scientific dishonesty are entitled to the presumption of innocence. Any allegation of dishonesty must be put to proof. For that, you need transparent processes, independent institutions and the rule of law.

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    1. @Citizen Science and your 2nd and 3rd point.
      Funders like the US NIH and German DFG routinely ban researchers from funding whom they find them guilty of misconduct during their own investigations. Also Voinnet was excluded from funding for 3 years by Swiss SNF. Such ban, even though it is always temporary (only for a couple of years), can become a career death sentence. A scientist unable to apply to a central national funding agency can quickly become useless for his or her university, as there will be no pizzo forthcoming.
      Luckily, as I showed in this article, there is still ERC which activates its own investigative committees very, very sparingly (like now with Gonzalez). If on the other hand, ERC were to reconsider their laissez-faire policy, especially retrospectively, there would suddenly be a lot of fear and teeth gnashing among their elite recipients.
      So you see, big funders hold all the power. They can investigate themselves, stop the funding and even demand past money back. The problem is simply they do it very rarely or never.
      In this vein, funders can even grab the journals by the balls. They can announce to be particularly sceptical about papers from journals which they have a reason not to trust entirely. Imagine what happened if ERC (or EMBO) issued an expression of concern to Cell’s or even Science’s editorial policies after this:
      https://forbetterscience.wordpress.com/2016/07/29/with-voinnet-and-cosma-cover-up-cell-now-admits-they-have-no-editorial-integrity-whatsoever/
      https://forbetterscience.wordpress.com/2016/01/21/olivier-voinnet-case-correcting-the-uncorrectable/

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    2. Problem is that you advocate doing nothing, because there is no independent arbiter that will be universally accepted, and there will always be easy scapegoats (the PhD-student, for instance). By the same reasoning we can’t punish doped sportsmen either. It’s like asking Russia to condemn its own sportsmen and -women.

      With grant funding being increasingly difficult to impossible to obtain, we need to make sure we support the honest scientists by giving them much better chances than dishonest scientists. While one problematic paper may not qualify you for the “dishonest” class, two or three suggest a pattern. There will have to be a pressure on the PIs, host institutions and journals to act, rather than hide behind procedural smokescreens.

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    3. That is why we have so much fraud around. Criminal type of evidence or “science police” are impossible. Cheaters can sleep well. Enough to insist that they honestly believed in their nonsense and errors are unintentional to claim new funds. Fill tax declaration with errors and you pay penalties. Write whatever manipulated data and admit ” small error” – state money are at your disposal anyway.

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    1. Simple: University of East Anglia began investigating his PhD thesis, as I was reliably informed. At some point they understood if they continue to investigate, they will have not other choice but to strip Voinnet of his PhD degree for data manipulation. Which in turn would automatically make him lose his ETH professorship and bring down the entire defence set in place by ETH, CNRS and other research institutions to protect Voinnet, his funding and first and foremost: his very, very eminent co-authors. In view of this, University of East Anglia decided to bog down their Voinnet investigation and deny they ever performed one. They rejected three of my FOI requests.
      https://forbetterscience.wordpress.com/2016/04/07/voinnet-aftermath-ethical-bankruptcy-of-academic-elites/

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  6. The main global problem about all of this may exactly start when you want to get a PhD in certain specific cases (do not generalized to global honest scientists): the PhD student will start cheating because it is the only way you can satisfy your Mentors. After the PhD you want to continue growing in the science field and once more you will continue cheating and cheating, it will be a growing snowball till it gets so big that will drag everybody including the ex-PhD student and the Mentors.

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  7. Of course, the main factor here is not the ERC as such, but the BIG MOVABLE GRANT (lots of those around). However, in this equation, a strong structural factor is the nowadays very popular research political mechanism to award research institutions with moregiovernment money, the more external money they manage to attract. On top of that, extra external money in turn usually also implies more publications, which is also a common parameter for government funding of university research. I’m not saying these mechanisms are wholly bad (at least not the latter one, the first one I do harbour some serious skepticism towards). The point is that had it not been for these factors, the way for cheaters of buying themselves a safe haven wouldn’t be as open as it is today.

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  8. @Leonid – I am surprised that you are not able to get the quite obvious hints from Hanna responses on Twitter. Scientists who undergo investigations at most (if not all) universities can neither confirm nor deny even the existence of such an investigation, and obviously say nothing about its outcome (even if it is in their favor). Only authorized officials at the University can give you such information, and that is why he encouraged you to do so. The fact that Hanna remains at the Weizmann institute and very active scientifically over the last 2 years, indicates that such an investigation did not find serious issues with his research and that he was vindicated. This sounds very different from the other cases you indicated above.

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  9. Maria Pia Cosma, which has had tons of papers with grave issues also received an ERC grant: https://erc.europa.eu/projects-and-results/erc-funded-projects/project/rere
    It ended in Dec 2015, one has to wonder if she applied again and the panel was aware of her many problems in her (non-)scientific output.

    In addition, Janine Erler, has recently been awarded (http://www.bric.ku.dk/newslist/news/2016/erc-consolidator-grants-for-bric-researchers/) an ERC consolidator grant, despite this, look at e.g. the Nature paper: https://pubpeer.com/search?q=erler&sessionid=0319E11D9CBBA238484D&commit=Search+Publications

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