Obesity expert owns up to million-dollar crime

Physiologist pleads guilty to one of the largest misconduct cases on record.

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A US physiologist is facing a possible prison sentence after pleading guilty to a felony in one of the largest research misconduct cases on record.

On 17 March, through a comprehensive agreement with the US government, Eric Poehlman acknowledged falsifying 17 grant applications to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for nearly $3 million, and fabricating data in ten published articles.

Poehlman, 49, who could not be reached for comment, has been barred for life from receiving US grants. He faces up to five years in prison and the ten articles are being retracted.

In January, Poehlman resigned his most recent position at the University of Montreal in Canada. He has published more than 200 articles on obesity, the menopause and ageing. His eight years of misconduct up to 2000 occurred when he was a researcher at the University of Maryland in Baltimore and at the University of Vermont in Burlington, which initiated the investigation against him in 2001.

“This is the biggest case we have ever had,” says Alan Price, head investigator for the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which monitors grants for agencies such as the NIH. The only other criminal case of research misconduct in the United States involved psychologist Stephen Bruening of the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1988 he received a 60-day sentence for providing false information about a drug study.

Authorities say Poehlman engaged in a variety of tactics to derail the investigation into his activities. All proved unsuccessful, and eventually led the US Attorney's Office in Vermont to seek the criminal conviction.

In 2001, Poehlman sued the university in federal court to prevent the ORI from being notified of possible misconduct. When he was unsuccessful, Poehlman quickly and quietly departed for Montreal, where he was given a research position endowed by the Canadian government. Montreal was not aware of the allegations until the autumn of 2003, officials say, at which point he was placed on leave.

The first questions about Poehlman's research were raised at Vermont in late 2000 by a student researcher, Walter DeNino, who observed data being altered. Last year, DeNino filed a federal false-claims suit against Poehlman for misrepresentations made to the NIH. The US government then secured $180,000 — virtually all of Poehlman's assets — as repayment for the falsifications to the NIH. DeNino is to receive $16,000 to cover his legal fees.

“I was shocked when I discovered Dr Poehlman's activity,” says DeNino, who is currently a student at Columbia University in New York. “He and his lawyers attacked my character.”

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Office of Research Integrity

Papers affected by Poehlman's misconduct

The Scientific Community's Response

Ethics and Survival Skills in Academia: Misconduct in Science

Bell Labs announces results of inquiry into research misconduct

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Dalton, R. Obesity expert owns up to million-dollar crime. Nature 434, 424 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/434424a

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