Misconduct row fuels calls for reform

Sydney

A fierce row over misconduct allegations has prompted Australian researchers to call for an office of research integrity to be set up.

The issue came to a head on 10 February, when Senator Kim Carr, research spokesman for the opposition Labor Party, released to parliament an unpublished report of an inquiry into allegations made about an immunologist at the University of New South Wales.

The case centres on Bruce Hall, a transplant immunologist working on graft tolerance. In 2001, Hall was accused by four complainants in his laboratory of fabricating and falsifying experimental results in an abstract and paper, providing false data in a grant application, misattributing authorship credit and workplace bullying. The experiments in question involved the use of cells from the immune system — called CD4+ T cells — to transfer graft tolerance to rats with transplanted hearts. Hall emphatically denies the allegations.

In June 2002, the university commissioned an external panel chaired by Gerard Brennan, Australia's former chief justice, to investigate. The panel's report, delivered to the university in January 2003 but not published until Carr released it, said that Hall had engaged in scientific misconduct.

Hall himself hotly contests the findings of the Brennan report. “They got the science wrong,” he says, adding that panel members did not understand his field of research. Before the report's release in parliament, Hall had taken court action to try to block its publication. And last December, Rory Hume, vice-chancellor of the university, ruled that Hall was not guilty of scientific misconduct and decided to censure him formally for lesser charges of academic misconduct.

But Carr has criticized the university for not releasing the report earlier. “It's a matter a of public interest,” says Carr. “I don't believe the university has responded appropriately.” Several members of the university's governing council, as well as some faculty members, have also taken issue with the handling of the matter.

For many researchers, the greatest concern is not so much the individual case but the flaws it exposes in the way Australian universities handle misconduct cases. Several have called for an office of research integrity, similar to the one in the US health department. “The current process is inadequate,” says Warwick Anderson, head of Monash University's school of biomedical sciences. “We've now been faced with a major case of a reputable investigator and a highly respected university — it has been deeply problematic and hasn't served anyone's interests.” Hume agrees: “Australia could do well to have an office of scientific integrity,” he says.

The National Health and Medical Research Council, Australia's main funding agency for biomedical research, terminated Hall's grant last October, saying that he had provided misleading information in his grant application. In June 2002, the agency initiated a review of Australia's guidelines on all aspects of the conduct of research, which is being conducted jointly with the Australian Research Council and the universities.

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Dennis, C. Misconduct row fuels calls for reform. Nature 427, 666 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/427666a

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