Researchers are unsure whether to draw comfort from the acquittal of Thomas Butler on most charges of illegally transporting plague. Credit: R. O'SHAUGHNESSY/LUBBOCK AVALANCHE-JOURNAL

On 1 December, a jury in Lubbock, Texas, split the difference in its verdict on the celebrated case of plague researcher Thomas Butler. The jury cleared Butler of serious crimes relating to his handling of samples of plague bacteria, but convicted him of defrauding his university through contracts with drug companies.

In the aftermath of the case, the research community is likewise split over what its ultimate impact will be. Some insist that what they see as a vindictive prosecution of an esteemed researcher will scare many biologists away from sensitive but important work. Others say it that the case has not harmed biology — and should not alarm researchers who take care to follow the rules.

“Butler [was] innocent of the initial FBI charges relating to handling the select agent but found guilty because of peripheral information they dug up after the fact,” says Stanley Falkow, a microbiologist at the University of Stanford, California, who has spoken out against the prosecution. “I'm not sure that this will calm anyone's fears — certainly not mine.”

But others point out that such worries have not prevented researchers from scrambling to apply for the funds that the federal government has offered for biodefence work. Ronald Atlas of the University of Louisville in Kentucky, a former president of the American Society for Microbiology, says that many scientists are eager to work on such projects.

Atlas knowledges that scientists must comply with a new array of regulations in the wake of the postal anthrax attacks in 2001. “We live in a new regulatory environment; it is our responsibility as scientists and citizens to comply with the laws and regulations,” Atlas said in an e-mail. “I have not seen evidence that [the regulations] are having an adverse impact.” He declined to comment specifically on the Butler case.

Butler was arrested in January after he reported that vials of plague bacteria were missing from his laboratory at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. He was charged with 15 crimes, including lying to federal agents about the vials, transporting them without the proper paperwork, and cheating on his taxes. Later, the Department of Justice charged him with 54 further crimes relating to his “shadow contracts” with drug firms.

The jury acquitted Butler of almost all of the 15 original charges — except shipping the bacteria overseas illegally — but convicted him of the fraud charges relating to his drug-company contracts. Federal judge Sam Cummings has until mid-February to set Butler's sentence. Butler's lawyers say that they will appeal against the convictions.

Regardless of the appeal outcome, Butler faces an uncertain future. On 12 December, officials at Texas Tech will meet to resume an administrative hearing that could result in his dismissal. The hearing began before Butler's trial and stemmed from disagreements between Butler and the university over financial and administrative issues. And already this year, Butler and his family have spent almost $1 million on legal fees, his lawyer says.

But Peter Agre, a joint winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry, says that Butler should be able to continue his research career elsewhere because most scientists are sympathetic to him. “I believe that Dr Butler will survive with his name intact, but at a high cost,” Agre says. “It's been a very emotionally draining year.”