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Congress seeks Purdue documents on inquiry into fusion claims
By Rick Callahan
The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel
Friday, March 30, 2007
INDIANAPOLIS - Purdue University has become the target of a congressional inquiry nearly two months after a university panel cleared allegations of research misconduct against a scientist who claimed to have produced nuclear fusion in tabletop experiments.
A congressional subcommittee has given Purdue until April 5 to turn over copies of its findings into the allegations raised last year against Rusi Taleyarkhan, a professor of nuclear engineering.
Purdue announced Feb. 7 that an "internal inquiry" found no evidence supporting those allegations and "that no further investigation of the allegations is warranted."
School officials, citing a Purdue confidentiality policy, have declined to discuss the details of the charges leveled against Taleyarkhan and what the inquiry found.
That statement, and the fact that taxpayer money - including about $800,000 from the Department of Defense - has been spent trying to independently recreate Taleyarkhan's findings caught the attention of the House Committee of Science and Technology.
On March 21, the chairman of that panel's Subcommittee of Investigations and Oversight asked Purdue to turn over reports of the school's inquiry.
In his letter to Purdue President Martin Jischke, the subcommittee's chairman, Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., said "many disturbing questions remain about the scope and adequacy of the investigation."
Purdue spokeswoman Jeanne Norberg said Friday that the university intends to provide all of the information requested by Miller's committee, which originally set a deadline of Friday but extended that until April 5 at Purdue's request.
In its Feb. 7 statement, Purdue said its inquiry into Taleyarkhan concerned only "internal allegations" - those from Purdue researchers.
Norberg said the university cannot comment on the nature of those allegation because a university policy prevents the release of information about misconduct investigations because those could damage the reputations of researchers, including those making the charges.
"That policy was established not only to give us an outline for how to do a review but to do it in such a way that it did not harm someone's reputation in the process," she said.
Taleyarkhan, whose fusion claims were first published in 2002 in the journal Science, has stood by his fusion claims. He called the school's February announcement clearing him of research misconduct a "vindication" of him, his colleagues and their work.
But that research has been controversial from the outset.
In their paper in Science, Taleyarkhan and his colleagues claimed they had achieved nuclear fusion in "bubble fusion" experiments at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee by collapsing bubbles in a solvent with powerful ultrasound vibrations.
That simple tabletop experiment stood in contrast to experimental nuclear fusion reactors that have to date required large, multibillion-dollar machines.
At the same time that Science paper appeared, however, two Oak Ridge researchers took the unusual step of publishing dissenting research saying that Taleyarkhan's work was inaccurate.
And since late 2003, when Taleyarkhan joined Purdue's faculty, other scientists, including some at Purdue's West Lafayette campus, have tried unsuccessfully to reproduce his work.
In March 2006, two Purdue researchers claimed in an article in the British journal Nature that Taleyarkhan had attempted to thwart their efforts to test his "bubble fusion" claims. They also said their confidence in his work has been seriously shaken.
To address those allegations, Purdue mounted two internal inquiries, the first of which completed its work last June without divulging its findings. The second inquiry completed its work early this year, leading to the February statement by Purdue officials.
But that statement has only led to criticism by some scientists, particularly those who have spent years trying to independently recreate what Taleyarkhan claimed to have achieved.
Ken Suslick, a professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is one of those scientists. He and others question whether Taleyarkhan's work may have been fraudulent and is puzzled by Purdue's inquiry.
Suslick said he wrote to Purdue last June, before the first inquiry was completed, raising those and other concerns. He said Purdue officials never contacted him about that letter.
"The Purdue administration has been as nontransparent and as obscure about what their investigation concerned as they could possibly be," Suslick said Friday.
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