Several months ago, I read an interesting article written by Sara Reardon and published in Nature titled “Uneven response to scientific fraud”. The Science and Nature journals are great at providing news surrounding scientific topics, including discussions on scientific fraud. In this article, the author discusses a case of misconduct, which is typical to other cases and certainly not the most egregious in terms of harming patients in a trial or a danger to public health. Yet despite this, the penalties this researcher received were quite harsh. And as I have written in previous blogs, it seemed no one else is to blame including research institutions.
On July 1, 2015, Dr. Dong-Pyou Han was sentenced to 57 months in prison for research misconduct. Dr. Han is a biomedical scientist who was let-go from Iowa State University for fabricating and falsifying data of a HIV vaccine research study where he spiked rabbit blood samples with human HIV antibodies which made it appear that the rabbits were developing immunity. In addition, he has also been fined 7.2 million dollars. Because Han’s research was supported by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), the investigation was performed at his home university with reports sent to the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI). He admitted to misconduct and explained his actions by saying he tried to cover up a mix-up in samples he had made years ago. As such, ORI debarred him from funding for up to 3 years. In the article by Reardon, several experts of misconduct explained that receiving a 57 month prison sentence is quite rare. These experts also explained that ORI’s maximum debarment of 3 years is typical for such cases and stiffer penalties are used for those who have greatly impacted public health or harmed human participants in a clinical study. But Dr. Han’s case received higher profile than most because Iowa senator Mr. Charles Grassley wanted to make an example of him. Grassley felt that the penalty of losing a job and 3 years debarment for such a case was light compared to the public deception and the waste of millions of taxpayer dollars. While I would agree with the Senator, I am think that 57 months in prison is a bit over the top given the type of harm. But my contention is not really to talk about the penalty given to Dr. Han. Rather, I am interested in knowing why again, as is the case with almost all cases of research misconduct, a focus has been placed solely on the culprit and there is no blame or responsibility shifted to institutions.