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Fraud Finding Triggers Payback Demand

17 August 1999 7:00 pm
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Officials at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in California thought they were setting a positive example when they exposed allegedly fraudulent research conducted by one of their scientists. Now they feel they are being punished for their forthrightness: The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has demanded that the lab repay $804,000 in grant money that was awarded to the researcher.

The accused biologist, Robert P. Liburdy, published a pair of papers in 1992 that appeared to provide the first evidence that electromagnetic fields (EMFs) at the low strengths found in homes could have a physiological effect on cells by increasing the influx of calcium. His findings were taken as support for the hypothesis that EMFs could cause cancer. But a co-worker questioned the work, and in 1995, after a 2-year investigation, LBNL concluded that Liburdy had deliberately published fraudulent findings. The federal Office of Research Integrity agreed in June that Liburdy's data did not support the claims in his papers (Science, 2 July, p. 23). Liburdy has denied wrongdoing (Science, 16 July, p. 337).

NCI wants the lab to return the grants it received for Liburdy's research from 1991 until March 1994. In a letter dated 3 August 1999, NCI says that "the rationale for this decision is that the misconduct that occurred affected the validity of the entire grant project."

The demand has angered Mina Bissell, chair of the LBNL Life Sciences Division in which Liburdy worked. Bissell notes that the lab is returning the unspent portion of the funds, but to demand repayment of money that has been spent, she says, is punitive. "We have shown a lot of courage, more than most universities," says Bissell of LBNL's handling of the case. "We did all the right things. What message does this [demand for repayment] send to other institutions?"

But Marvin Kalt, director of NCI's Division of Extramural Activities, argues that the agency is only doing its job: "If there's been a misuse of funds, an agency has an obligation to recover them." Kalt adds that NCI has previously recovered research grants in "a handful of [misconduct] cases." The NCI letter gives LBNL 30 days to either pay or appeal the decision. LBNL spokesperson Ron Kolb says the lab plans to appeal.

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