Saturday, March 19, 2005

Science And Lies

One of my favorite women called my attention to the obscene fraud perpetrated by Dr. Eric Poehlman, who falsified data in order to pump up his federal grant applications. Grant reviewers typically rely heavily on the "Preliminary Studies" section of the application, in which researchers describe prior data supporting their current hypotheses. It's common to include the results of studies conducted so recently that the data hasn't yet been published (and thus subjected to peer review), so it's easy to see the potential for fraud. Not that peer review alone would have been likely to uncover a fraud so egregious:
Dr. Poehlman represented in the 1995 Annals Article that he had tested 35 healthy women for basic metabolic characteristics and retested the same women six years later for the same characteristics. In fact, Dr. Poehlman falsified and fabricated test results for all but three of the 35 women in the study. [...]

In 1996, Dr. Poehlman initiated a new project where he planned to recruit subjects who had previously been tested at UVM from 1987 to 1993 and retest them for the same and additional physical and metabolic characteristics over time. [...] Dr. Poehlman exaggerated the number of subjects tested and changed the values for the physical characteristics of the subjects and the test results for these subjects (often reversing the values from the initial test and the retest) in order to create trends during the aging process that were not reflected in the actual research data. [...]

Dr. Poehlman used data purportedly from the Prospective HRT Study in two grant applications to NIH seeking federal funding for additional HRT studies. In fact, Dr. Poehlman did not have access to the data and just fabricated the preliminary test results in the grant applications.
As far as I can tell from a quick Medline search, the main thrust of Poehlman's "research" appears to be that women get fat when they hit menopause, that this poses enormous health risks, that hormone replacement therapy should be used more widely, and that menopausal women should be encouraged to diet. Just to add a feminist outrage component to my scientific outrage.

I admire Walter F. DeNino, the research assistant who blew the whistle. DeNino must have known that he might be ending his own research career forever. A research assistant typically doesn't survive going up against a tenured professor. Fortunately, now that Poehlman's been so conclusively brought down, DeNino shouldn't suffer any worse consequences than the loss of his Poehlman-related publications from his vita.

As someone who makes her living off grant-funded research, I admit that I take considerable satisfaction in seeing the Hammer of God descend on Poehlman, via the federal Office of Research Integrity:
Dr. Poehlman has agreed to pay $180,000 to settle a civil complaint related to numerous false grant applications he filed while at UVM. In addition, Dr. Poehlman will pay $16,000 in attorney's fees to counsel for Walter F. DeNino, a research assistant whose complaint of scientific misconduct spurred an investigation by UVM. Also, Dr. Poehlman has agreed to be barred for life from seeking or receiving funding from any federal agency in the future, including all components of the Public Health Service, and to submit numerous letters of retraction and correction to scientific journals related to his scientific misconduct. Dr. Poehlman also agreed to be permanently excluded from participation in all Federal health care programs.
That last line means that not only is his research career over, but so is his clinical career. You can't be a practicing physician in the U.S. if you're barred from accepting Medicaid or Medicare reimbursement - unless you become a private practitioner to the wealthy, and how likely is that if you're burdened by a fraud conviction?

But there's more. "He's also facing criminal charges," I announced to my Significant Otter. "He could go to prison for five years."

"But that settlement sounds like a plea bargain," he said, sounding surprised.

"It is. In exchange for Poehlman doing all those things, the U.S. Government has agreed not to give their opinion on whether or not Poehlman should get a more lenient sentence."

That's all his deal got him - not an agreement to seek a lesser charge, but simply a "no comment." That's what I mean by the Hammer of God.