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Federal investigation apparently finds ‘reckless’ falsehoods in NCSU research

A federal investigation into research misconduct at N.C. State has apparently found that two chemistry professors and a graduate student falsified research in a groundbreaking 2004 paper in the journal Science.

The three scientists at a North Carolina university “recklessly falsified their work,” according to a 2013 report to Congress by the Inspector General of the National Science Foundation.

The report did not identify the professors or university, but the facts were identical to those detailed in “Bad Chemistry,” a two-part News & Observer series published earlier this month. The articles chronicled years of struggle by Stefan Franzen, an N.C. State chemistry professor, to correct what he came to see as false research by two former colleagues, Bruce Eaton and Dan Feldheim.

The National Science Foundation has not said or written anything to N.C. State about its findings, either formally or informally, according to university spokesman Brad Bohlander.

“The OIG report appears to be the Franzen-Eaton-Feldheim case, and it does appear that the OIG has found research misconduct and recommended sanctions, but we cannot definitively confirm that,” Bohlander said.

The Inspector General recommended that the NSF require retraction of the article and bar the scientists from acting as a reviewer, adviser or consultant for the NSF for three years. The Inspector General also recommended that for the next three years, a supervisor certify that the scientists are following federal rules and writing accurate reports.

The report did not mention any sanctions against N.C. State.

The Inspector General is the investigative arm of the NSF; its findings and recommendations are not final. The deputy director of the NSF will review the report and underlying evidence before issuing an official disposition. That decision can be appealed to the NSF director. A final disposition could still be months away.

Eaton, Feldheim and Lina Gugliotti – at the time a doctoral candidate who worked with the two professors – did not respond to requests for comment.

A long fight

In 2004, Franzen had joined Eaton and Feldheim in landing a private $1 million grant that promised to use the power of evolutionary biology to produce world-changing inventions. Scientists could use RNA, molecules that act as genetic messengers within cells, to create super high-strength materials, or endless supplies of clean energy from water.

Eaton and Feldheim got $700,000 in related grant money from the NSF and the U.S. Department of Energy.

As research progressed, Franzen became convinced that the foundation of the project, the 2004 Science article, was based on false data. Franzen resigned from the project, precipitating legal threats and a bitter battle in the arcane journals of research chemistry.

In 2008, an internal NCSU investigation concluded that the original paper contained false data and departed from acceptable scientific practices. The investigation stopped short of finding research misconduct, concluding that Feldheim had acted carelessly, not intentionally or recklessly.

Eaton and Feldheim had both moved to the University of Colorado, which conducted its own investigation and found no wrongdoing.

N.C. State forwarded its findings to the National Science Foundation, which spent five years on the investigation. It isn’t clear whether the N.C. State investigators reviewed key notebooks that Franzen uncovered in 2011 after a long public-records battle with the university.

Lab notebooks

The 2004 Science article claimed that the scientists used RNA to manufacture hexagonal crystals of palladium, a rare and valuable metal. One notebook contained images of the hexagonal crystals degrading at room temperature, proof the crystals were not palladium, which has a melting point of 2,831 degrees and cannot degrade at room temperature.

In its September 2013 report to Congress, the Inspector General included a one-page summary of its investigation, which relied on those laboratory notebooks. The notebooks contained work performed by Gugliotti, who conducted many of the experiments for Eaton and Feldheim. She was listed as co-author of the 2004 Science article.

“The student’s lab notebooks, which described some experiments in great detail, lacked documentation to support the pertinent claim discussed in the article,” the report said. “Although both faculty members claimed to have reviewed the raw data, we concluded that the minimal raw data that existed in fact contradicted the pertinent claim in the article.”

Franzen said he was relieved to read the conclusions but was frustrated by the length of the investigation.

“Take 5 years to do a secondary investigation and the primary affected institution does not even know about the recommendation fully six months after it was made,” Franzen said in an email. “What a process! Franz Kafka would have a field day.”

Eaton responds

Feldheim and Gugliotti did not respond to multiple requests for comment for the original articles in The N&O. Eaton, who canceled a scheduled interview with the N&O in December, wrote a letter in January that The N&O received after the series was published. Eaton accused Franzen of launching attacks on him every holiday season.

“I do not care about this area of science at all,” Eaton wrote. “I did care at one time, but Franzen’s relentless attacks have killed the program. He has won and you can write an article to congratulate him on stifling innovative thought and creativity. Furthermore, you can encourage him to write threatening letters to my students as he has done where he promises to ruin their careers. Great guy, you should work closely with him and get inside his brain. I am sure you will be fascinated to learn how it works.”

Franzen said he had warned graduate students of falsified data and scientific problems. He said he never threatened anyone’s career.

Neff: 919-829-4516

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