July 17, 2014

Congressmen push NCSU on case of flawed research

The two House members say NCSU hasn’t done enough to correct the record. Chancellor Randy Woodson says it’s up to a scientific journal.

Two members of Congress are prodding N.C. State University Chancellor Randy Woodson to do more to correct the scientific record in a high-profile case of academic misconduct.

At issue is a groundbreaking 2004 article in the journal Science by two N.C. State professors and a graduate student. The Science article was the subject of a News & Observer series, “Bad Chemistry.” 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, and Ph.D. candidate Lina Gugliotti.

In 2008, an internal NCSU investigation found falsification of data; in 2013, the Inspector General of the National Science Foundation found that the authors had “recklessly falsified their work” and recommended that Science retract the article.

Science has not published a correction to date, which troubles Rep. Paul Broun, a Georgia Republican, and Rep. Dan Maffei, a New York Democrat, who chair the oversight subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

“We write today to express our dismay that the integrity of the scientific record for this NSF-sponsored work remains damaged,” the two congressmen wrote this week to Woodson. “Our dismay is only heightened by the recent revelations that this practice appears to be wide spread.”

Woodson said in an interview Thursday that the university has done everything possible; it conducted an internal investigation, contacted Science and other journals, and notified the NSF of the findings from its internal investigation.

“We made it clear to (Science) that they should correct the scientific record,” Woodson said. “We are not in a position to retract papers from a journal that holds the copyright.”

A bitter battle

The Science article claimed that the scientists used RNA, molecules that act as genetic messengers within cells, to manufacture hexagonal crystals of palladium, a rare and valuable metal.

After the article was published, Franzen joined Eaton and Feldheim in landing a private $1 million grant that promised to produce world-changing inventions. Scientists could use RNA to create super high-strength materials or endless supplies of clean energy from water, they said.

As research progressed, Franzen became convinced that the foundation of the project, the 2004 Science article, was based on false data. Franzen wrote a letter saying he would resign from the project, precipitating legal threats and a bitter battle in the arcane journals of research chemistry. Eaton and Feldheim both left to work at the University of Colorado.

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. The university referred the matter to the NSF and asked the authors to correct the scientific record.

In 2013, the NSF’s inspector general completed its investigation, relying on the laboratory notebooks kept by Gugliotti, who conducted many of the experiments for Eaton and Feldheim. The NSF has not issued a final report.

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.

Loss of integrity?

In the letter to Woodson, the congressmen wrote that the October 2009 NCSU letter to Science magazine “does not convey the intensity of the findings” of the internal NCSU investigation.

Woodson, the NCSU chancellor, disagreed: “We left it to the journal to correct the record.”

N.C. State officials had drafted a stronger letter to Science in May 2009, recommending that Science retract the article or demand that the authors correct it.

NCSU’s lawyers forwarded the letter to Feldheim and Eaton for comment. NCSU never sent that letter to Science; Franzen said the university backed off after Eaton’s lawyers threatened to sue. NCSU declined to provide letters from Eaton’s lawyers, saying they were part of Eaton’s personnel file.

In October 2009, the university sent a shorter letter to Science magazine that pointed out two errors in the articles and made no recommendation of retraction.

The congressional committee members are interested in this exchange and requested all such correspondence.

Franzen said Thursday that he believes the documents will show that Eaton’s lawyers were trying to intimidate the university.

“In the eyes of N.C. State, it was a credible threat that was more important than the institution’s integrity,” Franzen said.

Woodson said the university will cooperate with the congressional inquiry but stopped short of saying he would provide all the records requested.

“We’ll do everything we can to be responsive to the members of the subcommittee,” Woodson said, “to the extent we are able to that doesn’t infringe on personnel records.”

Feldheim, Eaton and Science magazine did not respond to requests for comment Thursday afternoon.

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