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The Biggest Science Scandals of 2017

This year’s controversial news included unethical behavior among politicians, a murder, and multiple accusations of gender discrimination and sexual harassment, in addition to the usual spate of research misconduct.

Dec 15, 2017
Jef Akst

Each year, amidst the technological breakthroughs and pioneering research studies that emerge from the scientific community, a few bad eggs warrant headlines of their own. Below is The Scientist’s roundup of some of the most scandalous happenings in the life science over the past 12 months.

Political turmoil

FLICKR, MARK TAYLOR, ALEX HANSONScience policy has been one of the biggest stories all year, so much so that we’ve dedicated an entire post just to this topic. Among the developments were a few personnel kerfuffles. In February, President Donald Trump’s pick to head the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was confirmed by the Senate. Ever since his nomination the previous November, Tom Price, an orthopedic surgeon and congressman (R-GA), was criticized for alleged conflicts of interest,  his vocal opposition to the Affordable Care Act, and his proposed changes to the Medicare and Medicaid programs. But it wasn’t until this fall that the new Secretary’s trouble escalated.

Following a report by Politico that Price had used taxpayer dollars to charter private planes, he announced his resignation. Following a brief stint by interim secretary Don Wright, Eric Hargan, a lawyer from Chicago who previously served as deputy secretary of HHS, now leads the department, which oversees the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

See “The Year in Science Policy

Meanwhile, another arm of the government, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), has struggled with its own controversy. In June, President Trump nominated former economics professor and radio personality Sam Clovis as the agency’s undersecretary for research, education, and economics. Again, the nomination was widely questioned, with critics in this case citing Clovis’s lack of credentials in science or agriculture.

But it was Clovis’s apparent knowledge of foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos’s role in talks arranged between Russian officials and the Trump campaign that would push Clovis to request to be withdrawn from consideration last month. For now, Chavonda Jacobs-Young, who holds graduate degrees in wood and paper science, continues to serve as undersecretary until a new nominee is confirmed.

Murder in Chicago

FLICKR, TONY WEBSTERIn early August, the news broke that a 26-year-old man in downtown Chicago had been stabbed to death, and that two academics were wanted for the crime. Northwestern University’s Wyndham Lathem, an associate professor of microbiology-immunology, and Andrew Warren, a senior treasury assistant at Oxford University’s Somerville College, were both arrested in California on August 4.

See “The Strange and Stranger Case of Wyndham Lathem

In details that emerged from a hearing at the Cook County Circuit Court in Chicago on August 20, prosecutors alleged that Lathem had been in a romantic relationship with the victim, Trenton Cornell-Duranleau, and that Lathem and Warren had conspired to kill Cornell-Duranleu and themselves. Both men have admitted to the stabbing but each pleaded not guilty to six counts of first-degree murder.

Gender discrimination lawsuits

WIKIMEDIA, X-WEINZARThis summer, three full professors at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, sued the institution for allegedly discriminating against women, claiming that they’d received less pay and funding and were slower to be promoted than their male colleagues.

The plaintiffs, Beverly Emerson, Vicki Lundblad, and Katherine Jones, are three of four female full professors at Salk, out of nearly three dozen professors. A little more than a month after the accusations were levied, a report on the financial gender gaps at the institute bolstered the women’s claims, finding that while female faculty brought in more than twice as much funding from the National Institutes of Health, they oversee much smaller labs and receive less support from Salk.

Then, in September, similar accusations surfaced at J. Craig Venter’s company, Synthetic Genomics (SG), where former employee Teresa Spehar is suing for gender discrimination.

Sexual harassment allegations

PIXABAY, 12019The scientific community is not immune to the spate of sexual harassment claims that have bombarded Hollywood bigwigs and other high-profile men this year. In October, University of Southern California’s medical school dean, Rohit Varma, was fired after the Los Angeles Times shared information it had acquired as part of an investigative story on a 2003 case of sexual harassment.

See “Dealing with Unethical or Illegal Conduct in Higher Education

That same month, three Dartmouth College professors, Todd Heatherton, William Kelley, and Paul Whalen, were placed on paid leave and barred from the campus while the university investigates allegations of sexual misconduct. And at the University of Rochester, brain sciences professor Florian Jaeger faces accusations of sexual harassment and intimidation.

These and other examples have prompted some to challenge how academic institutions typically handle such transgressions. With regard to Jaeger’s case, for example, hundreds of faculty members from around the world signed an open letter expressing their disappointment with how the university responded to accusations and calling for changes to the institution’s culture and leadership.

Such changes are imperative—and underway—beyond the University of Rochester, bioethicists say. “In recent years, sexual harassment complaints are a hot-button item, which institutions of higher learning are acting swiftly and decisively to eliminate,” Terry Leap, a professor in the department of management at the University of Tennessee, told The Scientist earlier this year. “The adverse media publicity and potential monetary liability pose too great a risk to simply sweep the matter under the rug.”

Research misconduct

FLICKR, ALLEN ALLENAs always, this year saw its fair share of research misconduct cases, both in terms of individual scientists falsifying data and foul play within the science publishing community.

  • In late July, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology found nearly 486 researchers guilty of participating in a peer-review fraud scam involving the nomination of fictitious or paid peer reviewers.
  • In August, the University of Tokyo determined that researcher Yoshinori Watanabe tampered with images in five prominent publications. 
  • That same month, Parkinson’s researcher Yoshihiro Sato of Mitate Hospital in Tagawa, Japan, requested that three of his published papers be withdrawn from the literature, bringing his total retractions to 17.
  • In late September, Yiheng Percival Zhang, a biofuels researcher at Virginia Tech, was arrested on charges of misusing federal grant funds totaling more than $1 million, in conjunction with postdoc Chun You and former student Zhiguang Zhu.
  • In October, the Expert Group on Scientific Misconduct at Sweden’s Central Ethics Review Board (CEPN) weighed in on a case The Scientist has been covering for years—that of surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, who has previously been found guilty of misconduct regarding the synthetic trachea transplantations he conducted that led to the death of at least three patients. The CEPN’s investigation found evidence of misconduct in all six of Macchiarini’s publications it reviewed.
  • Last month, 19 editorial board members of Scientific Reports resigned from the journal over a 2016 study that was allegedly plagiarized but that the journal refused to retract.

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