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Purdue research controversy continues
By Brian Wallheimer [article reprinted from Lafayette (Ind.) Journal & Courier]
Iowa City Press-Citizen
Friday, July 25, 2008
Sidebar: Timeline of the Purdue investigation
The two sides in a research controversy involving "bubble fusion" have starkly differing views on why a Purdue University scientist was found guilty of research misconduct last week, less than 18 months after his name was cleared of those charges under then-Purdue Provost Sally Mason.
Scientist Rusi Taleyarkhan's detractors believe Purdue didn't do its job investigating the claims correctly the first time and bowed to congressional pressure to further investigate the claims. A congressional subcommittee called the initial inquiry flawed and urged the university to re-evaluate the charges.
"The congressional committee's response to the first (inquiry) was absolutely correct," said Kenneth Suslick, chemistry professor at the University of Illinois and a skeptic of Taleyarkhan's work. "Purdue had so narrowly defined the question in the first inquiry, the results were irrelevant."
Mason, who now is president at the University of Iowa and who ultimately oversaw the Purdue inquiry, went so far once as to call the issue a conflict of personalities.
"What you've got are really some individuals who, for whatever reason, are pretty unhappy with each other and are going at it tooth and nail. And they really like to use whoever they can as a scapegoat to make a point," Mason said in 2007.
Those who were unhappy with the first inquiry pointed to that statement as evidence that Purdue didn't take the allegations seriously and tried to cover them up. Mason stood by the decision when she left Purdue.
On Thursday, she declined comment.
The Taleyarkhan camp believes there is a personal vendetta set to find him guilty of something, regardless of the evidence.
"The words that spring to my mind are 'scraping the barrel,'" said Colin West, a Taleyarkhan supporter and retired researcher from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. "It seems to me that it got very personal, very dirty, very early on."
Taleyarkhan was cleared of misconduct charges late in 2006 but found guilty earlier this year of two charges. An investigative committee found that Taleyarkhan put a student's name on a paper even though the student didn't participate in the research, and that he claimed another researcher's experiments were independent confirmation of Taleyarkhan's work, even though Taleyarkhan was involved in the research.
Taleyarkhan attorney John Lewis of Indianapolis has said he'll try to make a case out of the fact that Taleyarkhan was cleared once, but the university tried him a second time. He filed an appeal to the ruling earlier this week, and Purdue has only a few weeks to convene an appeals panel and rule.
The charges Taleyarkhan faced both times were fairly similar, even though they yielded different results, something Lewis believes makes Taleyarkhan's case stronger.
In the first inquiry, Taleyarkhan was charged with hurrying a research paper to print by a postdoctoral researcher in his lab to try to make it look as though his own experiments had been independently verified. He also was accused of taking part in those independent experiments.
In that case's conclusion, Peter Dunn, Purdue's associate vice president for research, wrote that Taleyarkhan had "displayed what might be characterized most favorably as severe lack of judgment regarding his involvement with the 'independent confirmation' experiment ..."
That report concluded that Taleyarkhan allowed Yiban Xu, his postdoctoral researcher, to use his equipment and guided him through the experiments. But the report decided that he did not help with analyzing data, and that did not meet the requirements for research misconduct.
In the most recent investigation, the final report states that Xu used Taleyarkhan's equipment and received instruction from Taleyarkhan, but decided that this did constitute misconduct because Taleyarkhan claimed those experiments were independent.
"I would hope that what happened in the second case is that they had new evidence," said Daniel Wueste, director of the Robert J. Rutland Institute for Ethics at Clemson University. "It sounds as though the inquiry committee (in 2006) accepted Dr. Xu's explanation of how things happened and the investigative committee (in 2008) did not."
Most university officials, including Dunn, won't comment on the investigation.
Mark Hermodson, professor of biochemistry and chairman of the latest investigating panel, said he couldn't say whether his panel received new evidence because he doesn't know what the original inquiry committee saw.
"If there was, I didn't know precisely what it was because I was on a different committee," Hermodson said.
Charles Scott, director for the Center for Ethics at Vanderbilt University, said the university would have to investigate if there was more evidence.
"If there are new charges based on new evidence, the university would have no choice but to reinvestigate," Scott said. "If not, one wonders what the reason (to investigate) was."
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