Sprague, Robert L. "Whistleblowing: A Very Unpleasant Avocation," Ethics and Behavior ( ,

 

Sprague, Robert L. "Whistleblowing: A Very Unpleasant Avocation," Ethics and Behavior ( ,
1993) [3(1)] pp. 103-133.

This article is a first person account of the author's experiences after he blew the whistle on
Stephen E. Breuning on 20 December 1983. As the subtitle to this piece suggests, his was a very
unpleasant experience. This article should dampen the enthusiasm felt of late concerning
whistleblowing where the indignant whistleblower has been protected and even rewarded for
exposing the bad guys. This is a sober reminder that one challenges the system at great peril and
while some may eventually survive and even be rewarded, it is still a risky business.

For those who have followed the unfolding of this case over the years, there is a wealth of detail
provided here which is not available from other sources. Sprague provides copies of letters
exchanged with officials of the NIMH bureaucracy, with officials at Pitt and with Congressmen.
It's all very clear: Sprague had "nailed" Breuning right from the first and only the reluctance of
university bureaucrats protecting their territory and government foot-dragging kept this case
unsettled for as long as it was, from late December 1983 until Breuning was sentenced for
"scientific fraud." It was Veterans' Day 1988 that Breuning was sentenced to 5 years probation,
paying back $11,352 and performing 250 hours of community service. Incidentally, the
University of Pittsburgh was forced to pay back $163,000 for the money Breuning had wasted.
That is not even close to speedy justice.

A great deal of the research done at government expense has no immediate and direct impact on
patient care. That is certainly not true in the present case. Breuning's phony data affected the
treatment afforded the mentally retarded all over the United States. That is what is particularly
galling about this case: it was not an abstract or arcane bit of lofty research, but a matter of the
care of the handicapped. Even so, it took all that time for justice to be done. In matters of this
sort, one would have thought the government and universities could move more quickly.

Professor Sprague has testified before Congressional committees and before various scientific
organizations all of whom were looking into this clear case of scientific fraud. In that sense, he
has come to be something of a celebrity - appearing on Nova for example - but it is clear, that
"fame" does not compensate for the losses he has suffered. Thus, he lost his government grant
BEFORE Breuning was investigated. In spite of his clear service to science and to patients, he
has suffered. Consider, as he puts it, "...I was a tenured full professor at a major state university
(U of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana) with considerable research recognition when I blew the
whistle on a nontenured, new assistant professor at another university. Even with all of these
important factors in my favor, I was barely able to blow the whistle successfully. I certainly did
not accomplish the task without much emotional trauma, which lasted several years, personal
financial expense, hundreds of hours of time, and professional loneliness, with little overt
support from colleagues." (p. 131)

What we have here is a warning that blowing the whistle is anything but easy. Nonetheless,
Sprague ends this piece with encouragement to whistleblowers: "Whistleblowers are vital to
proper operation of any complex system, but they are, at present, seriously undervalued." (p. 131)