'Zero tolerance' for research misconduct here

Institutions take steps to safeguard scientific integrity after data falsification scandal

Research institutions here have reaffirmed their commitment to safeguarding scientific integrity and taken steps to drive home its importance to researchers, in the wake of a data falsification scandal in publicly funded research that rocked three institutions here last week.

Ongoing investigations by Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have already led to the retraction of six academic papers in international journals, the termination of principal investigator Ravi Kambadur's joint appointments at NTU and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), and the revocation of the PhD degree of co-author Sudarsanareddy Lokireddy.

Worldwide, scientific fraud is not generally considered a criminal offence and there is no legislation in Singapore that explicitly deals with it, except in the case of ethical misconduct in human biomedical research.

In total, 23 authors were involved in the six retracted papers.

NTU research integrity officer Tony Mayer said NTU has "zero tolerance towards research misconduct", and requires all researchers to sign a declaration that they will uphold research integrity, and deposit their research records in a central system.

Other major research institutions here have similar policies.


Prof Kambadur was fired from his posts at NTU and A*Star over the recent data falsification cases. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Professor Steven Miller, vice-provost of research at Singapore Management University, said the university has policies to uphold high standards of integrity and to investigate any allegations of research misconduct.

And Professor Martin Dunn, associate provost of research at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), said the university has a research integrity code (RIC) based on the Singapore Statement on Research Integrity.

This statement was developed by participants from 51 countries at the second World Conference on Research Integrity in 2010.

He added: "In the light of recent events, SUTD held a training session with researchers as recently as early July, to highlight the importance of the RIC and raise awareness of these issues.

"With regard to research malpractice, we adopt an approach of strict zero tolerance, protection of whistle-blowers, and recognition of model behaviour."

The research under scrutiny in the latest case concerns myostatin, a protein that has been the centre of attention in obesity control and slowing down muscle degeneration since at least the 1990s.

The impact of the falsifications on the science and its applications to healthcare is not yet clear.

Dr Lee Chung Horn, an endocrinologist (hormone specialist) at Gleneagles Medical Centre, said that no myostatin-linked therapies are currently in use, but added: "Still, scientists are held to an ethical code of intellectual honesty."

Although 23 authors were involved in the six retracted papers, not all of them may be guilty of wrongdoing. A large-scale scientific study typically has many components and collaborators, scientists pointed out.

  • 23

    Number of authors involved

    6

    Number of papers retracted

Scientific fraud generally surfaces when a whistle-blower raises the alarm, or when other researchers cannot replicate the results.

A senior scientist who wished to remain anonymous said: "When you have thousands of scientists, there may be one or two undesirable characters who will cheat."

He added that competition and the pressure to produce results might be motivations. "The system can induce people who are too obsessed with key performance indicators (KPIs) to do this for short-term gains such as funding."

KPIs for scientists often include the number of papers and the impact factors of the journals in which they are published, which some scientists have argued are not the best determinants of the quality of research.

As the latest investigation continues here, questions still remain over who else will be fingered and the implications of the fraud.

Mr Lokireddy, who did his PhD at NTU before moving on to Harvard, is still listed on the Harvard Medical School website as a post-doctoral fellow. When contacted by The Straits Times, a Harvard spokesman declined to say whether the university is investigating.

Like him, some of the researchers were involved in more than one of the retracted papers. Most of Prof Kambadur's papers, for instance, also list his wife, Dr Mridula Sharma, a former associate professor at the National University of Singapore, as a co-author. This includes all six retracted papers.

Dr Sharma was indicated as being affiliated to NUS in a paper published as late as August last year.

The husband-and-wife pair came to fame as far back as 1997 when, at the Ruakura Agriculture Research Centre in New Zealand, they reported the discovery of a gene that affects myostatin, leading to a doubling of muscle growth in cattle, increasing meat production.

The lead author of three of the retracted papers was Dr Sabeera Bonala, a former graduate student in Prof Kambadur's lab, who received her PhD from NTU in 2013 for work on myostatin.

Another co-author who was involved in all six retracted papers was Dr Craig McFarlane, a principal investigator at A*Star's Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences.

The research was supported by grants from the National Research Foundation (NRF) and A*Star.

Exactly how much was pumped into the research is unclear, but in 2009 the NRF committed close to $10 million for Prof Kambadur's research over three to five years.

NTU declined to say how and when the falsifications were uncovered, and which researchers are being investigated, citing the ongoing probe.


DISHONEST ACTS: When some add dishonesty to the equation

The research under scrutiny in the latest case concerns myostatin, a protein that has been the centre of attention in obesity control and slowing down muscle degeneration since at least the 1990s.

The impact of the falsifications on the science and its applications to healthcare is not yet clear.

Dr Lee Chung Horn, an endocrinologist (hormone specialist) at Gleneagles Medical Centre, said that no myostatin-linked therapies are currently in use, but added: “Still, scientists are held to an ethical code of intellectual honesty.”

Although 23 authors were involved in the six retracted papers, not all of them may be guilty of wrongdoing. A large-scale scientific study typically has many components and collaborators, scientists pointed out.

Scientific fraud generally surfaces when a whistle-blower raises the alarm, or when other researchers cannot replicate the results.

A senior scientist who wished to remain anonymous said: “When you have thousands of scientists, there may be one or two undesirable characters who will cheat.”

WHEN PRESSURE PILES UP

The system can induce people who are too obsessed with key performance indicators to do this for short-term gains such as funding.

A SCIENTIST, on cheating in science

He added that competition and the pressure to produce results might be motivations. “The system can induce people who are too obsessed with key performance indicators (KPIs) to do this for short-term gains such as funding.”

KPIs for scientists often include the number of papers and the impact factors of the journals in which they are published, which some scientists have argued are not the best determinants of the quality of research.

As the latest investigation continues here, questions still remain over who else will be fingered and the implications of the fraud.

Mr Lokireddy, who did his PhD at NTU before moving on to Harvard, is still listed on the Harvard Medical School website as a post-doctoral fellow. When contacted by The Straits Times, a Harvard spokesman declined to say whether the university is investigating.

Like him, some of the researchers were involved in more than one of the retracted papers. Most of Prof Kambadur’s papers, for instance, also list his wife, Dr Mridula Sharma, a former associate professor at the National University of Singapore, as a co-author. This includes all six retracted papers.

Dr Sharma was indicated as being affiliated to NUS in a paper published as late as August last year.

The husband-and-wife pair came to fame as far back as 1997 when, at the Ruakura Agriculture Research Centre in New Zealand, they reported the discovery of a gene that affects myostatin, leading to a doubling of muscle growth in cattle, increasing meat production.

The lead author of three of the retracted papers was Dr Sabeera Bonala, a former graduate student in Prof Kambadur’s lab, who received her PhD from NTU in 2013 forwork on myostatin.

Another co-author who was involved in all six retracted papers was Dr Craig McFarlane, a principal investigator at A*Star’s Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences.

The research was supported by grants from the National Research Foundation (NRF) and A*Star.

Exactly how much was pumped into the research is unclear, but in 2009 the NRF committed close to $10 million for Prof Kambadur’s research over three to five years.

NTU declined to say how and when the falsifications were uncovered, and which researchers are being investigated, citing the ongoing probe.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 22, 2016, with the headline ''Zero tolerance' for research misconduct here'. Print Edition | Subscribe