Scientist Pleads Guilty to Falsifying Data

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

In the biggest scientific misconduct case the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has seen in decades, a former scientist at the University of Vermont Medical School (UVM) has pled guilty to falsifying data on an aging research grant application for $542,000. Eric Poehlman yesterday admitted in federal court to acting alone, and he has sent letters to 10 journals requesting retractions or corrections. Scientists in the fields of aging, metabolism, and exercise felt the scandal would have relatively little impact on core assumptions or research directions.

During a 2 year review, investigators with the Office of Research Integrity at the department of Health and Human Services found falsified data in 15 of Poehlman's federal grant applications. NIH and the United States Department of Agriculture funded $2.9 million of grants based on applications with falsified data, the government said.

Poehlman published several papers with falsified data; the most influential appeared in 1995 in the Annals of Internal Medicine. It was retracted in 2003 after an UVM investigation. That work linked menopause with a slowed metabolism--potentially explaining the higher cardiovascular and metabolic disease risks faced by older women. André Tchernof, a physiologist at the University of Laval in Quebec City who was a postdoctoral fellow in Poehlman's lab from 1997 to 2000, says that that the paper's findings were later replicated by two other independent groups, one in Australia and one in Sweden.

Government investigators found many of Poehlman's published papers free of false data. Nonetheless, Tchernof says, "people are going to wonder now which papers are true and which papers are not."

As part of his plea agreement, Poehlman, who left the UVM in 2001 amidst the university probe, will pay $180,000 to settle a civil complaint related to a number of other false grant applications. Criminal charges could carry up to 5 years in jail and a fine of up to $250,000. Poehlman, who now lives in Quebec, is also barred from receiving federal grant money for life. Neither he nor his attorney returned calls.

UVM considers the matter closed. "We are engaged in a process of rebuilding trust with our community. There are some concerns among some people in the community who were the research subjects," says Russell Tracy, associate dean for research at UVM. Former colleagues of Poehlman are also reviewing old studies, he says.

--ELI KINTISCH
with reporting by Jennifer Couzin

Related site
Department of Health and Human Services Office of Research Integrity report on the Poehlman case

Posted in Scientific Community