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.
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his research money from the Swiss National Fund (SNF) and even saw his EMBO Gold Medal, awarded to him in 2009, withdrawn.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.
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.
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.
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 1: for a story of yet another ERC-funded cheater scientist, the DNA repair researcher Maria Fousteri, please read here and here. EU Commission was officially informed of research misconduct findings but continued to pay out the grant till the very end.
Update 3: because ERC decided Hanna’s research integrity worries are behind him, they gave him a Consolidator Grant.
Update 6. Another Spanish scientist under criticism. After Carlos Lopez-Otin received a Nature mentoring award, new evidence of data irregularities was posted on PubPeer. His research is financed by ERC since 2016. The Nature Cell Biology paper on which the grant was awarded has been retracted, along with 8 more Lopez-Otin publications.
Update 7. If you wish to know how ERC bureaucrats can sideline scientist peer reviewers, read here.
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