University of Adelaide Investigates Ancient DNA Lab

University of Adelaide Investigates Ancient DNA Lab

An external consultant will review the work environment of the institution’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, led by evolutionary molecular biologist Alan Cooper.

Jul 23, 2019
Ashley Yeager

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Update (August 19, 2019): Evolutionary molecular biologist Alan Cooper has been suspended from the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA following a probe into the culture of the center, Nature reports.

The University of Adelaide has launched an investigation in to the work environment of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA. The lab is run by an evolutionary molecular biologist Alan Cooper; it’s the second time a university has investigated allegations of misconduct in a lab he has led. 

A University of Adelaide spokeswoman tells the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the investigation would provide “an informed and accurate picture of the culture within the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA.” At least one former lab member, Nic Rawlence, currently the director of the University of Otago's paleogenetic laboratory in the Zoology Department, has come forward saying the center was damaging for both his physical and mental health. It was “cut throat” and “everyone was in it for themselves,” he tells ABC.

During his time in the Adelaide lab, Rawlence says, he developed severe, debilitating stomach problems and that the atmosphere made it difficult for him to speak and write publicly about his work. He apparently was not alone in feeling frustrated by the lab culture. “We had people leave left, right and centre when I was there—we put in official complaints . . . we talked to the higher-ups,” he tells ABC. “And we were constantly told from up the chain, ‘yeah, we know all about it, but nothing is going to happen’.”

His and others’ concerns apparently went unheeded until July 3 when employees of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA received an email from Megan Lewis, head of the School of Biological Sciences at the university, encouraging them to participate in the “culture check” of the center, according to a blog post written by journalist Michael Balter. The culture check, Balter writes, is a euphemism for allegations of bullying, harassment, and other misconduct by Cooper.

It is not the first time Cooper has been accused of misconduct. In 2005, he resigned as director of the University of Oxford’s Henry Wellcome Ancient Biomolecules Centre after the university conducted an internal investigation of allegations that he fabricated data in grant applications. 

See “Oxford DNA Lab Leaderless

Now, new allegations of falsifications in grant applications, along with bullying, harassment, and unethical and disrespectful research practices, have arisen under Cooper’s leadership, spurring the investigation, Balter reports in a July 11 blog post.

According to Lewis’s email, Adelaide will conduct an external investigation run by SAE Consulting, which will solicit statements about the lab culture from current and past employees and associates. Balter reports Cooper and another high-ranking lab member have tried to thwart the investigation by telling students and staff not to cooperate with the external consultant.

A university spokesman tells The Advertiser (via The West Australian) that the investigation would ensure “all staff, students and affiliates are engaged in a positive and collegial environment; and provide information to assist consideration of what, if any, changes might be made”. He added, “The University does not propose making further public comment at this time to preserve the integrity of the process.”

Ashley Yeager is an associate editor at The Scientist. Email her at ayeager@the-scientist.com.