Barinaga, Marcia and Kaiser, Jocelyn. "Fraud Finding Triggers Payback Demand," Science 285

 

Barinaga, Marcia and Kaiser, Jocelyn. "Fraud Finding Triggers Payback Demand," Science 285
(20 August 1999), pp. 1189-1190.

Officials at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in California thought they were
setting a positive example when they exposed allegedly fraudulent research conducted by one of
their scientists on the effect of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) on living cells. Now they feel they
are being punished for their forthrightness: The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has demanded
that the lab repay more than $800,000 in grant money that was awarded to the researcher.

"We think that to require us to pay back the money would set a very dangerous precedent," says
LBNL spokesperson Ron Kolb. "It discourages institutions from be having responsibly." But
Marvin Kalt, director of NCI's Division of Extramural Activities, argues that the agency is only
doing its job: "We're obligated to review whether we should recover" misused funds. Indeed,
LBNL is not the first institution that funding agencies have dunned for repayment after a
misconduct finding, although such cases seem to be relatively rare.

The accused biologist, Robert P. Liburdy, published a pair of papers in 1992 that appeared to
provide evidence that EMFs at the low strengths found in homes could have a physiological
effect on cells by increasing the influx of calcium. His findings were taken as support for the
hypothesis that EMFs could cause cancer. But a co-worker questioned the work, and in 1995,
after a yearlong investigation, LBNL concluded that Liburdy had deliberately published
fraudulent findings. The federal Office of Research Integrity (ORI) agreed in June that Liburdy's
data did not support the claims in his papers (Science, 2 July, p. 23). Liburdy has denied
wrongdoing (Science, 16 July, p. 337).

ORI's conclusions apparently triggered NCI's demand that the lab return $804,000 ‘in grants for
Liburdy's research from 1991 until March 1994. The letter from NCI, dated 3 August 1999, says
that "the rationale for this decision is that the misconduct that occurred affected the validity of
the entire grant project." All costs incurred by Liburdy "are unallowable," the letter says, because
the funds "were expended to support falsified research or obtained on the basis of falsified
research."

The NCI demand has angered Mina Bissell, chair of the LBNL Life Sciences Division in which
Liburdy worked.Bissell notes that the lab is returning the unspent portion of the funds, but to
demand repayment of money that has been spent, she says, is punitive. "We have shown a lot of
courage, more than most universities," says Bissell of LBNUs handling of the case. "We did all
the right things. What message does this [demand] send to other institutions?"

Officials respond that the National Institutes of Health,of which NCI is part, states in its grant
policy that awards may have to be returned if they're misspent. Kalt adds that NCI has previously
recovered research grants in "a small number of [misconduct) cases"although they are the
exception. Although ORI doesn't track recovered grants, Lawrence Rhoades, director of ORI's
Division of Policy and Education, says he's aware of only a few cases among the 100 or so
misconduct findings by ORI since 1992. "Figuring out how much money the government should
get back is not always easy to do," explains Rhoades. Often the scientist found guilty played a
small role in a study, or the overall conclusions are still valid.

To Bissell this inconsistency adds to the unfairness of NCI's demand. The NCI letter gives LBNL
30 days to either pay or appeal the decision. Kolb says the lab plans to appeal.