I agree that this is ridiculous.
This incidentÂ should notÂ have escalated so quickly toÂ aÂ ciminal case.Â It is time for all concerned to step back and handle it appropriately as sane grown-ups. Still, it is very chilling to me as a researcher.Â We should all be very disturbed that an institutionÂ rapidlyÂ escalated thisÂ to a criminal case, saying data was 'stolen'. At best, this is a civil dispute amongst parties each of whom has rightful claims to the material.
As scientists, we need to ensure that the ensuing legal battle does not hamstring our abilities to continue our studies following a move.Â In my opinion, this whole episode requires a strong response from the academic community or we may continue to have colleagues facing criminal charges.
A recent issue of Science filled in some background for me.Â I willÂ summarize below my understanding what transpired. If that information is accurate, I am adamant that the researcher should not be facing criminal proceedings.Â
A researcher published data that others could not replicate. The researcherÂ ruffled some feathersÂ in in an ultimately incorrect defense ofÂ herÂ initial dataÂ but participated inÂ extensive follow-up studies that put her claim to rest.Â This dispute was associated with a disease in which an institution had been set up, in a public university,Â with extensive privateÂ contributions from donors. Those donorsÂ alsoÂ became the administrators of the institution and I suspect that this close personal affiliation also may have contributed to the suspicion and rancor that followed. The researcherÂ was fired within one week after the publication of the latest findings disavowing what had become a personal battle for many researchers and patient advocates.
So what about the data that lies at the heart of the criminal charges? From the institution's side, they have a right to access the data that they helped support, alongside of support coming from NIH and DOD research grants to the university. Legally (in the US), federal grants are made to the institution, not the researcher. This is mostly to ensure that funds are spent according to appropriate regulations.Â But the grants really are to the researcher. You know that because, inÂ the absence of the Principal Investigator,Â the granting agencies will not entertain any request that the remaining funds stay at the institution for someone else to work on them. When the researcher moves institutions, the granting agenciesÂ usually approveÂ the request from the PI to move the funds, as long as the former host institution agrees (which is the norm). In short, funds generally are granted for research that is most affiliated with the PI, not the institution.
So, there were grants to the PI in question. That PIÂ cannot continue her grants without an institution. She needs theÂ data in order to rapidly find another job and request to the granting agencies that the funds be transferred to the new institution.Â Transferring data and the grants is the norm in an academic institution. As stated in the Science article, the only confounding issue is whether the institution is academic or corporate, since there were private funds involved in the set-up. This blends the line between ifÂ the institute wasÂ a 'company' or a university. It appears to me though that this is a university, although the continued presence of the donors in administration indicates that there mayÂ have been someÂ unusual circumstances associated with the set-up of the institution.
There is an easy solution. Copies of the original data should be available for both the researcher and the institution. The Science article mentions patenting concerns but that is really a separate discussion and, in my opinion, also simple. The usual practice is that the PI and associates are the inventors and the institution is the assignee, which has the real legal standing. Work started in the prior institution thatÂ is continuedÂ elsewhere needs to have those assignee claims differentiated appropriately at that time.