With many states on the move to make vaccinations mandatory, perhaps people should reconsider how sound that vaccine safety really is – and how much we trust the system to keep it in check.
A vaccine researcher formerly at Iowa State University was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for spiked data, after admitting to “fabricating and falsifying data in HIV vaccine trials.”
Rare is the scientist who goes to prison on research misconduct charges. But on 1 July, Dong-Pyou Han, a former biomedical scientist at Iowa State University in Ames, was sentenced to 57 months for fabricating and falsifying data in HIV vaccine trials.
In some cases, Han spiked rabbit blood samples with human HIV antibodies so that the vaccine appeared to have caused the animals to develop immunity to the virus … Han said that he began the subterfuge to cover up a sample mix-up that he had made years before.
But this high profile case stands alone, with the vast majority of scientific fraud going unpunished, and typically resulting only in minor fines or suspension. That is exactly what Nature says stands out:
Han’s harsh sentence raises questions about how alleged research fraud is handled in the United States, from decisions about whether to prosecute to the types of punishments imposed by grant-making agencies.
The only reason this case led to jail time and a serious response is because Sen. Chuck Grassley took personal interest in the case:
[…] criminal prosecution is unusual for a “medium-level” fraud case such as Han’s. “In most cases, I don’t think it would have been done. But Senator Grassley cares deeply about these issues and wanted to make that point.”
“This seems like a very light penalty for a doctor who purposely tampered with a research trial and directly caused millions of taxpayer dollars to be wasted on fraudulent studies,” Grassley wrote in a February 2014 letter to the ORI.
The seriousness of fraudulent science research is indeed on a grand scale, and could cost lives.
But most of it goes unpunished because the system has inherently been captured by corporate interests who are not just biased, but who are steering a global agenda backed by favorable studies. Nature reports:
The very few researchers who face criminal charges are not necessarily those who have caused the most harm to other scientists’ careers, or to science generally. “We’re so preoccupied with major cases and so subject to policy pressure, we’ve lost sight of the larger picture,” says Nicholas Steneck, an expert in research integrity at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
In theory, the US Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which falls under the Dept. of Human Health Services, is supposed to investigate fraud and create accountability for misconduct – but in practice it ridiculously has no power to do so.
The ORI cannot directly investigate suspected fraud or misconduct; it is limited to overseeing probes by the institutions that employ researchers suspected of wrongdoing [however] … the ORI can impose funding bans…
Like so many other things, it is politically taboo to talk about the extent of corporate influence – though it is pervasive – over watchdogs, government approval and research – even when scientists admitted simply making up data to fit the model.
Several major editors have blown the whistle on the epidemic level of untrustworthy and unreliable published research. Lancet editor Richard Horton says the problems are system wide:
“The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness.” (source)
Horton also made scathing remarks about the biased system of peer review back in 2000:
The mistake, of course, is to have thought that peer review was any more than a crude means of discovering the acceptability — not the validity — of a new finding. Editors and scientists alike insist on the pivotal importance of peer review. We portray peer review to the public as a quasi-sacred process that helps to make science our most objective truth teller. But we know that the system of peer review is biased, unjust, unaccountable, incomplete, easily fixed, often insulting, usually ignorant, occasionally foolish, and frequently wrong. (source)
This den of vipers is nearly as protected as the “Too Big to Fail” Wall Street crowd, though perhaps putting forward scapegoats to take the fall for getting caught just comes that much more naturally to research work.