Research misconduct: Congress chides cursory probe
By Brian Wallheimer
The [Lafayette, Indiana] Journal and Courier
May 11, 2007
A strongly worded memo a Congressional committee sent to Purdue Thursday scolds university officials for their shallow inquiry into multiple research misconduct claims and challenged the university to correct its mistakes.
For years controversy has swirled around Rusi Taleyarkhan, a nuclear engineer who claimed to have achieved tabletop bubble fusion.
The process, if possible, could create clean energy much cheaper than any available now.
But allegations of research misconduct and fraud have dogged Taleyarkhan and Purdue. Researchers across the world have spent millions but have been unable to replicate the findings.
The allegations, from nuclear engineers across the country and within Purdue's own department, claimed that Taleyarkhan was too involved in experiments that purported to have verified bubble fusion and thatTaleyarkhan put students' names on papers they had not written.
Purdue held an inquiry into the allegations, but finally concluded there was no misconduct.
But the memo from the House Committee on Science and Technology's subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight argues that finding should have been impossible based on the evidence Purdue found.
The memo outlines Purdue's inquiry, which stated Taleyarkhan displayed "what might be characterized most favorably as severe lack of judgment." It also said Taleyarkhan had played a significant role in writing papers that were supposed to be independent confirmation of his experiments and he abused his position as a senior scientist in working with younger researchers.
That should have warranted further investigation, the memo said.
Congress is involved because the federal government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to reproduce Taleyarkhan's results.
The issue is a problem for Purdue because funding organizations could shy away from the university over the investigation. That could mean lost research dollars and difficulty attracting faculty.
A statement released by the university pledges cooperation with Congress and announced further inquiries.
"Purdue has worked closely with Congressman Miller's subcommittee and his staff in order to provide full access to the university's review of the allegations of misconduct," Purdue president Martin Jischke said. "The congressman and I have discussed how Purdue should go forward and have together identified steps for the next stage of Purdue's review process."
Provost Sally Mason, in the release, said another inquiry was started in February, just after a decision was made not to go to a full investigation. She said further claims prompted the second inquiry.
"Under our policy on integrity in research, we began this new review in confidence, and we will endeavor to keep the committee's activities confidential until we make our report to Congressman Miller's committee," Mason said.
Purdue has been mum on the investigations, saying an open investigation could be damaging to a researcher's reputation.
Jischke's comments seem to say he doesn't agree with the committee's findings, but he didn't elaborate.
"While there are characterizations in the subcommittee staff report that we could debate, it is not productive to do so now in the midst of our continuing inquiry," Jischke said.
Joe Bennett, Purdue vice president for university relations, said an investigation was never launched because the faculty committee that did the initial inquiry decided it wasn't necessary.
The memo outlines the inquiries from Purdue and said further investigation was warranted, but never acted upon, violating the university's own procedures. If there was possible wrongdoing, the university should have launched a full investigation.
"There is no question that Purdue deviated from its own procedures in investigation (sic) this case and did not conduct a thorough investigation into the allegations against Dr. Taleyarkhan," the memo said.
According to the memo, Purdue's inquiry committee questioned why a graduate student who had nothing to do with independent verification papers was listed as a co-author and why Taleyarkhan placed junior scientists in "precarious positions" in order to promote his research program and "abused his privilege as a senior scientist."
The memo also suggests Mason tried to brush the allegations aside by calling them nothing more than personality conflicts in the Department of Nuclear Engineering.
"What you've got are really some individuals here who, for whatever reason, are pretty unhappy with each other and are going at it tooth and nail," Mason was quoted as saying in April of this year. "And they really like to use whoever they can as a scapegoat to make a point."
The memo, and a letter from committee chairman Brad Miller, D-N.C., urges Purdue to change its committee membership. The new committee contains people from the previous committees.
"Appointing new, independent and disinterested committee members would add credibility to the process," the memo said.
Jischke, in the news release, agreed to add more independent committee members.
Miller also urged Purdue to act according to its standing in the scientific community.
"Purdue is a premier research and educational institution," Miller wrote to Jischke. "I sincerely hope that the next inquiry will be conducted in a manner worthy of your great institution."
According to the House Committee on Science and Technology's subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, this is the timeline of events surrounding claims of research misconduct by Rusi Taleyarkhan, a Purdue researcher.
2002 -- Rusi Taleyarkhan, working at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, publishes research findings that confirm bubble fusion, a method for producing massive amounts of energy through environmentally clean and cheap methods.
August 2003 -- Taleyarkhan becomes a faculty member at Purdue. Questions about his research practices are raised, but did not reach upper administrators at the time.
May 2005 -- A paper, "Confirmatory Experiments for Nuclear Emissions During Acoustic Cavitation," is published in the journal Nuclear Engineering and Design, claiming independent verification of Taleyarkhan's findings.
A student listed as co-author on the May 2005 paper and another paper released later in the year goes to the head of Purdue's Nuclear Engineering Department and said he had nothing to do with either paper. He alleges Taleyarkhan has added his name to the papers.
October 2005 -- A paper titled "Bubble Dynamics and Tritium Emission During Bubble Fusion Experiments" is presented at the 11th International Topical Meeting on Nuclear Reactor Thermal-Hydraulics claiming independent verification.
2005 -- Lefteri Tsoukalas, head of Purdue's Nuclear Engineering Department, raises concerns to Purdue officials over Taleyarkhan's research, the papers claiming independent confirmation and his team's inability to replicate the experiment.
2006 -- Nature publishes articles questioning the research claims and researchers from other universities join in.
February 2006 -- A fact-finding committee formed by the School of Engineering determined that a student listed as co-author of two papers claiming independent confirmation of Taleyarkhan's findings had not participated in the research or data analysis. The other co-author on the papers will not state who had written the final draft of the papers. The report is given to Peter Dunn, associate vice president for research.
March 2006 -- Provost Sally Mason announces an investigation.
April 2006 -- The university forms a preliminary examination committee to discover and examine the facts surrounding concerns in articles written on bubble fusion. The committee will reference articles, conduct interviews and review available material.
A few days before the committee releases a report, Kenneth Suslick, a researcher at the University of Illinois, submits allegations to Dunn that claim fabrication of results by Taleyarkhan. Suslick later claims his allegations were ignored by Purdue.
The committee eventually delivered a report recommending further interviews and a detailed examination of data notebooks, after only interviewing two professors and limited documents.
July 2006 -- An inquiry committee is formed by Purdue and charged with determining if it is more likely than not that someone committed research misconduct. The university says that if that finding is made, an investigation committee would be formed.
Dec. 15, 2006 -- Purdue's inquiry committee exonerates Taleyarkhan of any research misconduct, though it finds he played a significant role in writing papers that were supposed to be independent of him and abused his position as a senior scientist.
April 2007 -- A congressional subcommittee requests all documentation on the prior inquiries from Purdue.
A new inquiry committee is formed by Purdue to look into claims made against Taleyarkhan and his research. The congressional committee chastises Purdue for using the same people on the committee as the 2006 inquiry and requests others be included.
May 2007 -- The Congressional committee releases its memo to Purdue president Martin Jischke criticizing prior inquiries.
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