More Trouble for Taleyarkhan

11 May 2007 (All day)

Officials at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, have launched a new inquiry into bubble fusion researcher Rusi Taleyarkhan, just months after exonerating him of research misconduct. The inquiry was brought to light by a congressional report made public today, which concludes that in its previous inquiry, "Purdue deviated from its own procedures in investigating this case and did not conduct a thorough investigation into the allegations against Dr. Taleyarkhan."

Taleyarkhan, a Purdue nuclear engineering professor, pioneered the controversial notion that sound waves can collapse bubbles in a manner that causes atoms to fuse, releasing energy in the process (ScienceNOW, 4 March 2002). If true, "sonofusion" holds the prospect of a cheap, clean, and abundant energy source. Fusion experts challenged Taleyarkhan's claims from the start. But last year, fellow Purdue researchers turned up the heat when they complained that Taleyarkhan was inhibiting their efforts to duplicate the research (Science, 17 March 2006, p. 1532).

In response, Purdue officials announced an initial review in March 2006. The university followed up over the summer with a formal inquiry to see whether a full-scale investigation was warranted. This February, Purdue officials announced that their internal investigations had absolved Taleyarkhan of wrongdoing (ScienceNOW, 7 February 2007).

Purdue's inquiry has faced widespread criticism from both inside and outside the university. Taleyarkhan's detractors complained that the inquiry was too narrowly focused and that they were never contacted by the Purdue committee to express their concerns. And in March, Representative Brad Miller (D-NC), who heads the Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology, asked for a copy of the university's internal reports (ScienceNOW, 22 March). Based on these documents, the House committee argues that even with its limited focus, Purdue's own investigation did find "serious deviations" from commonly accepted scientific practices. Among them: the fact that Taleyarkhan played a significant role in writing papers that he later cited as independent verification of his work, and that he placed junior scientists in "precarious positions" in order to promote his research program. "Based on these conclusions, it is difficult to understand how the Inquiry Committee could have then decided that Dr. Taleyarkhan's actions did not constitute research misconduct," the report states.

In an e-mail to ScienceNOW, Taleyarkhan says that he is "appalled at the note from Rep. Miller for its lack of balance and single-minded fervor. ... As written, the memo/letter presents only the accuser's point of view and passes its verdict on the accusations."

Joseph Bennett, Purdue's vice president for university relations, says that "Purdue's position is that it did follow its policies correctly," and it continues to do so. Shortly after completing the last inquiry, Bennett says the administration received additional allegations regarding sonofusion and has opened a new inquiry. Miller's subcommittee became aware of the new inquiry as part of their review of the case.

In addition to its criticism of past investigations, the congressional report chides Purdue officials for the makeup of the new inquiry panel. According to the report, all three of the panel members served on previous inquiry panels looking into sonofusion, as did the staff member assigned to it. The report recommends adding one or more outside members to ensure the panel's independence, which Purdue President Martin Jischke says he will do. In another move that's likely to appease critics, Purdue officials say they are now issuing an open call for witnesses to submit written disclosure of any misconduct they may have witnessed in sonofusion research at the university. Bennett says the university expects to wrap up the new inquiry in 3 months.

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