Great scientists never have any conflicts of interests, and in the case of the investigation of the research misconduct by the plant scientist Olivier Voinnet, led by his Swiss employer ETH Zürich, this was also apparently the case. Voinnet was found guilty of misconduct and admitted image manipulations in many papers. Yet his science remained largely unquestioned, and even original data behind the most outrageously manipulated figures was said to have been available in many cases. The ETH investigation recommended 6 retractions, one of which was even avoided thanks to the concerns the journal Science had towards that paper’s junior authors (Voinnet’s current retraction count stands at 8 papers and almost 20 corrections, where manipulated data was simply exchanged with new one). Professor emeritus Witold Filipowicz, of the Friedrich-Mieschner-Institute in Basel, is like Voinnet a specialist in the field of regulatory small RNAs, and he was therefore one of two external Voinnet investigators whom ETH invited in early 2015. It did not matter to ETH that it was actually Filipowicz who nominated Voinnet for the EMBO Gold Medal, which the disgraced plant scientist then lost after EMBO’s own investigation into his many years of data manipulation.
It is not clear if ETH was aware that the emeritus investigator received just the year before €10,000 in personal Gutenberg Chair award from the Alsace council to collaborate scientifically with Voinnet’s other lab, at CNRS institute in Strasbourg (details here). And ETH also refused to reply to me if they knew where Filipowicz was heading right after his completion of the Voinnet investigation. Maybe Filipowicz did tell them, in any case that sabbatical stay as Visiting Fellow at the Trinity College in Cambridge was not really well announced. In fact, it was kept pretty much secret, certainly after the ETH investigation began. The invitation was supported by a letter of recommendation of none other than Voinnet’s former PhD advisor and corresponding author of several Voinnet papers which Filipowicz had been investigating for data manipulation, Sir David Baulcombe, who is also a Trinity College Fellow.
The ETH report was completed on June 17th, 2015. On July 7th, Filipowicz was already in Cambridge, where he stayed until October 6th. The invitation to Cambridge was supported by the British biomedical research funding society MRC and their local Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB), and included housing, meals and a monthly salary of GBP 300. During this 3 months stay, Filipowicz has attended to Baulcombe’s lab meetings several times, had at least one private meeting with the lab’s head, “gave feedback” to one of his postdocs (which was even acknowledged in the Baulcombe publication Valli et al 2016), and gave a talk at the “RNA Club” in Gurdon Institute. He even stayed at the Trinity College, where I was told Baulcombe also lives.
This information I received mostly by submitting Freedom of Information (FOI) inquiries to MRC and the Trinity College. The official host was the Nobel Prize winner and president of The Royal Society, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who wrote to me:
“I sponsored Witek Filipowicz for a sabbatical through Trinity College where I am a Fellow. I had wanted him to visit Cambridge for several years because he is a very distinguished scientist in my field who is known for his breadth and encyclopaedic knowledge of RNA and translation. Both my colleague Lori Passmore and I, who work in the general area of translation and its regulation, thought it would benefit us to have him around. In the end I was able to convince him to come, and sponsored him for a Visiting Fellow Commoner at Trinity College where I am a fellow. I believe David Baulcombe (who is also a Trinity fellow) may have written a supporting letter, but it was I who made the application and who spoke to the committee about him when they were making their decision. Moreover, as I pointed out, I had myself first asked Witek much earlier about coming here. For the record, he spent the bulk of his time at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology where both Lori Passmore and I are group leaders, and Lori kindly agreed to share her office with him. We are not associated with Baulcombe’s lab, which in any case is about 5 kms away (I have never even been to his lab)”.
We do not know if the two grand men of regulatory RNA research reminisced on how Filipowicz had just finished investigating the papers by Baulcombe and his former star graduate Voinnet. But we can safely note that the ETH commission did not recommend a single paper from Baulcome lab for retraction, only those authored by his PhD student as last and corresponding author. This was certainly not because the commission omitted the Baulcombe lab papers, they were scrutinised. For Voinnet et al, Cell 1998, the ETH commission was at a loss on
“why these manipulations were done since inspected primary data looked similar and introduced changes generally had no effect on conclusions of the experiment”.
Naturally, the journal Cell followed its laissez-faire policy on data manipulation and announced to do nothing at all. About another paper from Baulcombe lab, Brignetti et al, EMBO J 1998, Filipowicz and his co-investigators proposed:
“In the absence of the original data produced before 1998, OV has stated his wish to repeat, under institutional supervision, the key experiment shown in Fig. 6i. The commission supports this proposition, if EMBO J. allows publishing such a corrigendum”.
However, EMBO Journal did not agree and retracted that paper. Another one featuring Baulcombe as last and corresponding author (Voinnet et al 2003) was pulled by The Plant Journal for blatant data manipulations, but that one did not feature in the ETH report at all.
Filipowicz never replied to my emails. Baulcombe himself eventually largely confirmed to me the above information, but he wished not to be quoted by me, or contacted ever again. In fact, also this famous discoverer of RNA interference in plants had his difficulties with grasping the concept of a conflict of interest. Only some years after Voinnet left Baulcombe’s lab in 2002 to become independent group leader at l’Institut de Biologie Moléculaire des Plantes (IBMP) in Strasbourg, his mentor had been handling a Voinnet lab manuscript as academic editor. The paper by Moissiard and Voinnet was published in 2006 in the elite journal PNAS, and retracted for data manipulation in 2015, upon the recommendation of the ETH commission. PNAS guidelines to editors specifically ask thesis advisors not to handle manuscripts by their own students, current and former. But back in January 2015, Baulcombe explained to me:
“I did not exclude myself as editor because I had no continuing collaborations with Voinnet – there was no conflict of interest”.
Of course Filipowicz was free to do sabbaticals wherever he was invited. It is however another issue if he should have been investigating the publications by Baulcombe in the first place, right before his visit to him and his Cambridge colleagues. He should have at the very least declared all this to ETH, together with that €10,000 Gutenberg Chair and the EMBO medal issue, and even his chairing of Voinnet-evaluating 2008 review board at IBMP Strasbourg, before accepting the Zürich invitation to investigate. Maybe the emeritus professor actually did so in full detail, and it was the ETH who chose not to mind. Switzerland is a small country, and Filipowicz is the specialist in the regulatory small RNA research field which Voinnet also became the star of. Yet the other ETH investigator, Edward Farmer, seems to have no connections to Voinnet whatsoever aside of working in the plant science field. It was possible to find an COI-free external committee member even in the tiny Helvetic mountain state. Yet for some reason, ETH wanted Filipowicz. Why? Aside of acknowledgement of receipt of my emails, all I got back from ETH was silence.
Update 29.11.2016: Maybe it was wise after all of ETH and their investigators to be lenient on Professor Voinnet. His lab just now published a paper in the top plant science journal, The Plant Cell (Pumplin et al, 2016). It was at this journal where Voinnet had his first retraction (Dunoyer et al., Plant Cell 2004) following the whistle-blowing by the US researcher Vicki Vance who exposed previous unethical editorial practices at The Plant Cell (background here).