Purdue University has set up a third panel to look at allegations of research misconduct against nuclear engineer Rusi Taleyarkhan. The existence of the latest inquiry emerged when a congressional committee wrote to the university questioning the thoroughness of its earlier review. Now Purdue, based in West Lafayette, Indiana, faces an uphill task in convincing the wider scientific community that it is mounting a serious investigative effort, critics say.

A third panel will probe bubble-fusion findings at Purdue University. Credit: PURDUE UNIV.

Since 1999, Taleyarkhan has received more than $780,000 from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for work towards the goal of 'bubble fusion', in which energy-releasing fusion reactions are triggered by passing ultrasound through deuterated liquids1. In February, Purdue cleared him of misconduct after two inquiries2,3. But a third panel was set up in March following complaints to the inspector-general of the Office of Naval Research, which oversees DARPA grants.

Its existence came to light on 10 May, in a memo from the investigations and oversight subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology, chaired by Brad Miller (Democrat, North Carolina). “I sincerely hope that the next inquiry will be conducted in a manner worthy of your great institution,” Miller wrote to Purdue president Martin Jischke.

A subcommittee-staff memo sent with his letter alleges that Purdue's previous efforts on the issue were “not thorough”, “never addressed the validity of the underlying research” and “did not follow” established procedures for investigating misconduct allegations. The criticisms are partly based on the subcommittee's analysis of internal Purdue documents that it requested in March.

According to the memo, these documents show that in March 2006, Purdue charged a panel with determining the facts surrounding articles published in Nature and elsewhere that reported concerns over the validity of Taleyarkhan's research. This first panel reviewed a limited number of documents, interviewed only two professors inside Purdue, and concluded its work by recommending further interviews and examination of lab notebooks, the memo says. University officials then set up a second inquiry panel that, according to the memo, did not seem to follow the recommendations of the first, but instead solicited and examined a narrower set of allegations.

The memo reports that the second panel concluded that Taleyarkhan showed “what might be characterized most favorably as severe lack of judgment” when he participated in the preparation of a manuscript by a postdoc and a graduate student that claimed positive results for bubble fusion and did not name him as an author. Taleyarkhan then cited the work as “independent” confirmation of his own earlier research claims. The claim would not be accepted by the wider scientific community, the inquiry found. The memo says that the inquiry found Taleyarkhan had “abused his privilege as senior scientist” and placed the junior scientists in “precarious positions”. But the inquiry concluded that no full-scale investigation into the possibility of misconduct or the underlying research was warranted and the university then cleared Taleyarkhan of wrong-doing in a press release.

Immediately after the release of Miller's letter and the accompanying memo, Purdue issued a statement saying that although it “could debate” some of its contents, the university would instead focus on its fresh inquiry.

Taleyarkhan's long time co-author, Richard Lahey of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, took issue with the memo, saying that he had full confidence in Taleyarkhan's abilities and integrity and that the true story was one of “an exciting scientific discovery”. He criticized congressional staff members for failing to contact him or Taleyarkhan's other co-authors as a part of their own inquiries.

Purdue's new inquiry is understood to be covering some of the ground omitted by earlier ones, including allegations that Taleyarkhan's work may be fraudulent, a concern first received by the university in June 2006. The new panel consists of unnamed panellists from the previous inquiries, because, Purdue says, these people are “familiar with the issues”. In its statement, Purdue pledged to add one or more outside scientists to the panel.

But that may not be enough to restore credibility in the university's process, says C. K. Gunsalus, a lawyer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who specializes in research misconduct. “They need to completely reconstitute the process. Different panellists, including at least one external to the institution, are required to restore faith in their findings. It's the only way to close the matter.”

Gunsalus says the case raises a broader issue of how officials respond to misconduct accusations. “There's an unwillingness to be embarrassed,” she says. “People can make intuitive, but mistaken, decisions counter to the underlying interest, which is the integrity of the institution.”

Purdue says that it will continue to adhere to its own policy and to federal guidelines. Responding to Purdue's statement, Taleyarkhan said: “I have confirmed my full and complete cooperation with the new inquiry to be introduced this year at Purdue and, in fact, welcome the opportunity to once again clear up the doubts raised in the press.”

At Purdue, nuclear-engineering faculty expressed mixed feelings about the affair. Chan Choi, who chaired a fact-finding internal committee that looked into the authorship issues, says that institutional blunders should not overshadow the ample sound research performed at the university. “I think they have to make the charges clear and I think the committee's names should be known,” he says. But he adds that the outside interest has provided an opportunity for the university to improve its procedure now: “That's a healthy message from Congress.”