“Yes, my heart belongs to Daddy
So I simply couldn’t be bad“
A song by Cole Porter (1938)
On 5 May 2020, the EU Commission’s European Anti-Fraud Office OLAF issued this press release:
OLAF investigation uncovers research funding fraud in Greece
The protection of EU budget foreseen for research has always been particularly important for the European Anti-Fraud Office. A complex fraud involving a Greek scientist and her network of international researchers has been uncovered by investigators from the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF).
The case involves a grant of around €1.1 million from the European Research Council Executive Agency (ERCEA) to a Greek university. The money was intended to finance a research project run by a promising young scientist, whose father was employed at the university in question. The project was said to involve a network of more than 40 researchers from around the world under the leadership of the Greek scientist.
OLAF first became suspicious when it discovered how the international researchers were allegedly being paid. Cheques were issued in the name of individual researchers but were then deposited into bank accounts with multiple beneficiaries. Suspicions increased when it emerged that the cheques were personally deposited into the bank accounts by the lead scientist.
OLAF’s investigative team decided to conduct an on-the-spot check at the university in question. Despite attempts from the lead researcher to obstruct the investigation, and with the help from the Greek national law enforcement authorities which provided access to bank accounts and OLAF’s own digital forensic investigations, OLAF was able to piece together the true story behind the fraud.
Hard evidence was found, which demonstrated that the lead scientist had set up the bank accounts used to ‘pay’ the international researchers and made herself a co-beneficiary of the accounts in order to gain access to the money. OLAF followed the financial trails and was able to prove that large sums were either withdrawn in cash by the scientist or were transferred into her private account. A number of the researchers who were said to be involved in the research project were contacted by OLAF. None of them were aware that their name was linked to the project or had any knowledge of the bank accounts opened in their names or of any payments made into them.
OLAF Director General Ville Itälä said:
“This investigation demonstrates yet again the importance of being able to access banking records in order to fight fraud successfully. The sheer size and scope of the network of researchers allegedly involved in this project posed a real challenge to OLAF’s investigators. Their ability to access and verify accounts set up to allegedly pay researchers from across the world was a vital element in getting to the bottom of this attempt to defraud the EU budget — and that could have had significant detrimental effects on the reputation of the bona fide researchers whose names were being exploited as part of the fraud attempt.”
The investigation was concluded in November last year with recommendations to ERCEA to recover approximately €190,000 (the share of the €1.1m grant allegedly paid to the international researchers) as well as to the national authorities to initiate judicial proceedings against the persons involved.
If one follows the clues in the press release, they match only one female recipient of an €1.1. million ERC grant in Greece, “young” or otherwise, whose father works at the same university the grant was assigned to, namely in this case the nanotechnology grant awarded in 2008 to the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki. This same funding report also lists with the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany an international collaborator receiving € 182,778.80, which matches the sum of €190k misappropriated by the young Greek scientist and her international colleagues.
But it cannot be true.
Because the main person accused in the OLAF press release would then be the University of Florida professor and nanotechnologist Katerina Aifantis, a genius scientist, who graduated with PhD aged merely 21 and has been the youngest ever ERC grant recipient aged just 24. The prodigy only child of the Greek titan of material sciences and engineering, Elias Aifantis, who now, next to his daughter Aikaterini and possibly some Germans, seems also to stand accused by this outrageous OLAF press release.
Not possible. OLAF must have made a mistake with their overtly specific description which led to only one candidate, who must be an innocent victim of a misunderstanding. Let me explain to you what a benevolent genius Katerina Aifantis is, a person described by her father’s protege and Thessaloniki collaborator Avraam Konstantinidis as
“extremely fair and does not take advantage of other people. She believes deeply in God and the Greek tradition, all the way from classical Greece to the Hellenic and Byzantine periods, as well as Greek Orthodoxy. She has great respect for goodness.”
This is how BBC described Aifanti’s academic rise:
“She credits her precocity with growing up in a scientific environment – her father is a scientist working in the field of mechanics, who was surrounded by Nobel Prize winners.
“I met this beautiful community in science and I really wanted to be a part of it,” she explains. “I also wanted to see exactly what he was doing so that motivated me to go fast in my studies.”
At 16, she was given the opportunity to enrol at Michigan Tech by her High School principal.”
An extremely rare honour for a child. Because Aikaterini’s father held a professorship at that same MTU faculty of engineering since 1982, and an uncorruptable scientific titan like Elias Aifantis would never let someone that young graduate that fast. But he recognised immediately that his daughter was a genius. Not just Aifantis senior, also his MTU colleague Stephen Hackney, as Science reported:
“Aifantis was 17 when she approached Stephen Hackney, a colleague of her father’s, and asked him if she could work with him on applied elasticity, which her father had developed as a mathematical theory the year she was born. “I … found it would be very romantic to study that,” she says. Hackney “was hesitant” to take on so young a researcher, he writes in an e-mail, but he gave her a project on the micromechanics of lithium battery design when he recognized that her mathematical skills far exceeded those of many graduate students.”
According to her own self-recorded CV, after having graduated at MTU, Katerina Aifantis stayed between October and December 2004 at the prestigious University of Cambridge in UK, where she obtained her Master’s degree in absolute record time of 10 weeks.
Update 29.05.2020 However, University of Cambridge revealed under FOIA:
“This student took an MPhil degree (the University does not offer the MSc degree) in Engineering in the 2003-04 academic year and graduated at a Congregation held in December 2004. Her thesis is available solely in hard copy in the Department of Engineering Library [link here, -LS]”
The department head was Norman Fleck, old partner of Elias Aifantis (together they organised conferences in Thessaloniki already in the 1990ies), Katerina’s direct mentor in Cambridge was the mathematician and materials scientist John Willis, as Science wrote:
“Most students at Cambridge only start research when they’ve obtained their M.Sc., but Willis “allowed me to start right away,” Aifantis says. “His trust in me and belief is what made me work extra-hard.” Within a year, she got her master’s degree in engineering and cracked Willis’s problem in theoretical solid mechanics.”
Katerina Aifantis then moved to the University of Groningen in Netherlands, where, in just roughly 3 months, she graduated with a PhD. BBC explains how that happened:
“She passed her degree in engineering at 19, then went to Cambridge University in the UK for her PhD. She was supervised by the applied mathematician, Professor John Willis.
“He let me go straight ahead into research instead of making me take courses and following the traditional path,” she says.
Although she finished her dissertation within a year, she was unable to submit for a PhD at Cambridge because rules stipulate a minimum of three years of study.
“John Willis and I thought that I could transfer to a different university in Europe that has no time requirements,” she explains.
She moved to the University of Groningen, which was doing similar experiments, and became the Netherland’s youngest PhD ever, aged just 21.
“I guess I was very blessed in having wonderful people to support me, and also both my father and my mother were very supportive of my love for science,” she says.
Aifantis mentor there was Jeff De Hosson, with whom she submitted the doctoral dissertation titled: “Gradient plasticity with interfacial effects and experimental confirmation through nano-indentation”. It is not available online as pdf. The PhD degree was awarded on 18 April 2005. Science writes:
“So with Willis’s blessing, Aifantis set off for the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. She worked with applied physicist Jeff De Hosson, who was interested in doing experiments to test the theoretical work she had been doing in Cambridge. De Hosson allowed her “to enter the experimental world and most importantly arranged for my Ph.D. defense to take place.” Five months after arriving at Groningen, just before her 22nd birthday, she became the youngest person ever to receive a Ph.D. in the Netherlands.
Aifantis then spent a couple of years doing research with other established scientists in New York, Hong Kong, St. Petersburg in Russia, and Sheffield in the U.K. while interacting with her father’s group at Aristotle University.”
In 2008, less than a year into her first ever postdoc in Paris, Aifantis received that ERC starting grant of €1.1 million, titled MINATRAN (Probing the Micro-Nano Transition: Theoretical and Experimental Foundations, Simulations and Applications). Luckily, her father once again recognised her potential, and in wise foresight offered his own Aristotle University lab in Thessalonki to host the future ERC grant recipient as a new professor. The ERC founding president was back then another Greek science titan, Fotis Kafatos, who said about young Katerina:
“a very talented young female scientist, who not only earned her PhD at the age of 21 but also published several interesting papers in highly reputable scientific journals, such as the Journal of Mechanics and Physics, The Philosophical Magazine, Acta Materiala and the International Journal of Plasticity. In some sense, she is probably in a league of her own right now.”
Hence, as Science aptly wrote: “She needn’t have worried” about getting the grant.
And this was how Katerina Aifantis became professor at Thessaloniki. She collaborated with the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany (the collaborator MZ used to be Elias Aifantis’ postdoc), Katerina even had her franchise lab with postdocs in Erlangen. The ERC grant ended on 30 September 2013, as most ERC grants it definitely must have provided breakthrough results. Surely, because this was the Aifanti promise:
“In layman’s terms, this means she will explore the possibility of creating tiny lithium batteries that could be implanted in computer chips or directly into the head or heart of human patients. […] “We could all do with these brain batteries,” she giggles, showing her girlish sense of humour.”
But a genius’ place in America, so Aifantis went to the country her genius father already established himself in. From August 2013 on, not even waiting for the ERC project to end, Katerina Aifantis became associate professor at University of Arizona in Tucson. In 2016, she received a research grant to collaborate with her BSc degree mentor Hackney at MTU.
As soon as that grant ended, Katerina Aifantis left Arizona and joined the University of Florida in August 2017, where she now has her nanotechnology lab, funded by the Department of Energy and NSF. The lab website is decorated with photos from the most prestigious award ceremony a scientist can be honoured with, after the Nobel Prize itself. The FLOGEN SIPS Award, bestowed upon Katerina Aifantis in 2019 by the illustrious conferencier Florian Kongoli.
What do you mean, you never heard of him or his FLOGEN events? As the Dutch journalist Pepijn van Erp narrates here, Kongoli hosted an impressive number of science luminaries, among them several Nobel Prize winners, like Andre Geim and Fraser Stoddart. They sure didn’t look disappointed in the videos.
In fact, the award Katerina Aifantis received was named “Stoddart International Scientific Award“. Previously, in 2015, her father Elias received another FLOGEN award. The 2020 FLOGEN
scamconference event will take place in November 2020 in Phuket, among its organisers are listed both Elias and Katarina Aifantis.
Do you now see what a infallible scientist and a role model Professor Katerina Aifantis is? As if this is not enough, she is presently saving us all from the Coronavirus. In Greek media in April 2020, she told the audience about face masks and their capacity to filter out nanoparticles. Her own research, Aifantis said, is about developing nanostructured electrodes for brain stimulation which will be used to treat Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
“So I want to warn you laddie
Though I know that you’re perfectly swell
That my heart belongs to Daddy
Cause my Daddy, he treats it so well“
Aikaterini and Daddy in Moscow, 2016.
Please allow me to conclude with this quote from the 24 year old Katerina in 2008, just when she received her ERC grant:
“Asked if she expected her academic success to lead to riches, she says: “The last thing that interests me is the money. If I was interested in money, I would not have made my research public so everyone could share it.”
Greek journalist Sofia Christoforidou shared this interesting link with me. Turns out, the Aristotle University Thessaloniki sued the ERC in the EU Court of Justice, over well, what coincidence, the MINATRAN grant, held by Katerina Aifanti. ERC apparently tried to claim back additional ~€250k, but most embarrassingly, lost the case in full. In the verdict from 17 January 2019, “The Court:
- Annuls points 1, 2 and 3 of the operative part of the judgment of 6 April 2017, Aristoteleio Panepistimio Thessalonikis v ERCEA (T‑348/16);
- Declares that the claim formulated in debit note No 3241606289 of the European Research Council Executive Agency (ERCEA) of 26 May 2016 for the return by Aristoteleio Panepistimio Thessalonikis of part of the subsidy it received for the Minatran project, amounting to EUR 245 525.43, is unfounded up to an amount of EUR 233 611.75 and that the latter amount corresponds to eligible costs;
- Dismisses the action brought by Aristoteleio Panepistimio Thessalonikis and the application filed by ERCEA as to the remainder;
- Orders ERCEA to bear its own costs and to pay those incurred by Aristoteleio Panepistimio Thessalonikis in Cases T‑348/16 and T‑348/16 OP;
- Orders ERCEA to bear its own costs and to pay those incurred by Aristoteleio Panepistimio Thessalonikis in Case T‑348/16 OP-R.“
The lawsuits date back to June 2016 and are available in detail here. The ERC (presumably unsuccessfully) appealed on 2 April 2019, demanding a refund “for the amount of EUR 184 157 together with EUR 36 831.40“.
The thesis is large and contains lots of experimental research, which could never have been done in the 10 weeks Aifantis was in Cambridge or 3 months in Groningen (the official version). It does contain this declaration:
“The work described in this thesis has been made possible by financial
support from the US National Science Foundation, under its Graduate
Research Fellowship Program.”
The thesis promotors were De Housson and Willis, or examiners the Groninger professors HA De Raedt, P Rudolf and L Kok. Aifantis thanks “the National Science Foundation of the USA for supporting me through their Graduate Research Fellowship Program” at Michigan Technological University, which she received in September 2003 to graduate at Cambridge. The real mentor seems to have been however Daddy:
“The person responsible for my love for science is my father. His devotion to his work, in particular to his gradient theory, which dates back to the time I was born, is what motivated me to study mechanics. The feeling of being able to write a thesis which is based on ideas he introduced, at the time I was a newborn, cannot be described.”
Aifantis then thanks “my spiritual guide Fr. Simeon, as well as all the monks of the Holy Trinity orthodox monastery of Thessaloniki for appreciating what a God gift science is” and concludes with:
“Every gift that is perfect is from above, coming from You, the Father of lights.”
Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom
It is worth downloading the thesis pdf from the University of Groningen website and open its metadata. The pdf was created from the file “Microsoft Word – Thesis_final_3.doc” on 30.03.2005 by the author “Avraam”. Who is probably Avraam Konstantinidis (mentioned above), the loyal family friend, former PhD student and postdoc of Elias Aifantis, now associate professor in Elias’ Thessalonoki lab and tipped to be successor to Elias’ chair. There is absolutely no logical reason for Konstantinidis to have anything to do with a PhD thesis officially done in Groningen and Cambridge.
A reader alerted me to some inconsistencies in Katerina Aifantis’ PhD thesis (done in 3 months in Groningen). The thesis contains some experimental data, which was apparently later reproduced in a peer reviewed publication, Aifantis et al Acta Materialia 2006, with her PhD mentor De Hosson as penultimate and her Cambridge mentor Willis as last author. The data reuse as such is perfectly fine. But.
The problem seems to be: the same analysis, on iron-silicon alloy samples provided by a Czech collaborator, was presented in a selective fashion to create a fantasy fit curve for the PhD thesis. Out of 7 values in the Acta Materialia paper (where no curve is shown), only 4 data points were used in the thesis (multi-coloured frames). Since it is obvious all these data points were acquired simultaneously in Groningen on those Czech-donated samples, one wonders why Aifantis dropped 3 of them from her thesis.
When the omitted 3 data points (labelled in red) are re-introduced, the beautifully elegant (yet hand-drawn) curve makes no sense whatsoever, in fact, to draw it while aware of the omitted data points might amount to data falsification. Finally, for some reason the analysed sample was also differently labelled: Fe-14wt%Si (PhD thesis) versus Fe-2.2wt%Si (publication).
Update 29.05.2020: The Czech collaborator Pavel Lejcek, professor at Institute of Physics in Prague, hypothesised about the erroneous Fe-14wt%Si description:
“It is a mistake in the Thesis. The concentration of silicon in the bicrystals we have been producing at that time varied from 2 to 3 mass (wt) %. This corresponds to 4 – 6 atomic % of Si.“
Lejcek suspects a “printing error (14 instead 4 – but not wt.%)” and added in his next email to me:
“We did sent the samples 15 years ago to Jeff de Hosson whom we know. If it was realized in one or in more steps, I cannot say now more. I do not know when the measurements were completed. I am not the author of the Acta Mat. paper (and am absolutely not disappointed by that fact).“
The only question remains: why did De Hosson and Aifantis decided to drop 3 values and pencil-draw a false curve?
The University of Florida does not answer emails at all, sources informed that Katerina Aifantis is likely in the middle of obtaining tenure there. But the University of Groningen now answered my Freedom of Information inquiry (their replies in cursive):
1. The full PDF-file of the PhD dissertation:
The thesis has been available for many years (and still is) through the website of the De Hosson group. After your initial request we have transferred a copy to the official portal of the University of Groningen.
2. The date when the thesis was submitted at the University of Groningen:
The manuscript and the title page were approved on 22 March 2005 and 23 March 2005 respectively. The manuscript approval occurs through the evaluation committee, the title page by the PhD office. The printed thesis was received on the 29th of March 2005.
3. The date of the oral exam:
The oral examination, officially called public defense, was held on the 18th of April 2005.
4. The date when Dr Aifantis , as a PhD-student, was first present at the lab of Dr De Hosson:
The first meetings in the lab were in 2004. The start of the project, as registered in the University PhD-database was on the 18th of January 2005.
5. The date of the first e-mail contact between Dr De Hosson and Dr Aifantis:
The first contacts date from 2002/2003 at the Nato science series workshops & institutes & nanostructured materials conferences’. After that, there has been repeated contact concerning the ‘Hall-Petch relationship’. The exact date of the first e-mail contact is not known.
I then asked the University of Groningen about a more specific date than ‘2004’ as an answer to my fourth question. They replied:
“We have tried to obtain this information, but the specific date when Dr Aifantis was first present in the lab, is not officially registered. The official start of the project was, as stated before, on the 18th of January 2005. People involved in the research at that time remember that Dr Aifantis was present in Groningen from November or December 2004. A more specific date cannot be recalled.“
Aifantis graduated in Cambridge in December 2004, she went to De Hossen’s lab in Groningen right after. She officially started on 18.01.2005, the final PhD thesis document authored by “Avraam” was submitted on 29.03.2005, meaning the entire PhD thesis research by Katerina Aifantis took, writing included, merely 10 weeks.
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