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Why Scientific Fraud is On The Rise

Given our recent problems with stem cell research, this topic should be of general interest at the University of Minnesota.

From Allison Bass:

Over lunch, Harold (Skip) Garner, a professor of biochemistry and internal medicine at the Unviersity of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, told me and the other folks at our table that research shows an increase in the incidence of data manipulation in published papers, ranging from manipulating results on submitted manuscripts and images to plagiarism, duplication and fabrication.

First, the opportunity is there: ever more sophisticated technologies allow scientists to cut and paste and slice and alter data submitted electronically. Second, as funding for NIH grants grows scarcer, there is greater competition and more pressure on scientists to publish and win those grants.

A third reason Garner didn't mention is the increasing commercialization of science and medicine, which has spawned an army of researchers on the take from health product companies. And a fourth reason is an appalling lack of enforcement by federal and state agencies that are supposed to monitoring scientific misconduct. According to The New York Times, a new Congressional report shows that the FDA takes years to investigate researchers accused of scientific fraud, which means that many of these scientists remain eligible to conduct research even after they have been convicted of fraud by local law enforcement.


Similarly, the Office of Research Integrity at the NIH only investigates one in 100 cases of suspected data manipulation and it rarely resolves the cases it does investigate. The commitment to policing scientific fraud should come from the top, but I haven't heard anything about this problem from Francis Collins, the new director of the NIH.


The NIH can certainly do far more to investigate allegations of fraud and restrict grants to labs and universities where there is evidence of irregularities. But it can't clean house by itself. Universities and academic institutional review boards (IRBs) have got to get a lot tougher in policing ongoing research studies and requiring the disclosure of financial conflicts of interest that tempt researchers into manipulating data in the first place.

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