One of the truly enjoyable things about doing science is when you come up with an idea – a hypothesis – and have a chance to test it. This usually stems from the excitement that you think you’ve figured something out, and you want to see if further experiments support your hypothesis. All too often though, this gets translated to: I want to prove that I am right.
A couple of years ago, a professor at Duke University (lets call him HH) published a series of papers about using computers to engineer new activities into proteins – I won’t go into details, but this was a Big Deal. Lots of accolades. Many awards. Lucrative job offers. Duke even funded the creation of an internal institute with him as chief. I used to work in protein engineering (before being a drug hunter), so I was really excited by HH’s results. And to be honest, I was also a little jealous – I thought, “I wish I’d done that!” But you still had to respect it – it was really good work.
Anyway, flash forward to this year and the news that he has RETRACTED his landmark papers because other scientists were unable to duplicate his results (another big part of the scientific method). Retraction – especially at this high-profile level – is also a Really Big Deal.
Why couldn’t others reproduce his work? There are two current theories:
1. He and his students were sloppy scientists, did poorly controlled experiments and so their unreliable data led to bad interpretations. In other words: They screwed up.
2. He and/or his students knew they had questionable data and decided to pick-and-choose which data they kept and which they didn’t because it suited proving their idea. In other words: They cheated to get rich and famous.
Now there’s a huge gulf between committing errors and fraud, so which is it? No one’s quite sure. HH first tried to sell-out his student and blame her for everything (nice guy, huh?), which is thoroughly frowned upon and makes him seem like he’s trying to deflect his own responsibility in the matter – which of course, makes people think he’s got more to hide.
The repercussions have been swift– awards are being talked of being revoked (this is the scientific equivalent of Oprah calling James Frey on the carpet for fabricating “A Million Little Pieces”), he may no longer be able to apply for NIH funding and Duke has apparently changed its mind about paying for that Institute for him. He’ll be the guy talked about in every meeting – and certainly not with the grudging respect of a couple of years ago.
My own feelings are that he let himself become so enamored of his hypotheses – especially that drive to “prove that I’m right” and that he cut-corners on what MUST always be a very rigorous process. And by doing so, he’s undermined his entire career.
What a waste.