Austria's most serious report of scientific misconduct in recent memory must be handled properly.
The academic community in Austria often seems to be a closed, elite set, especially in the sphere of medicine. The power and influence wielded by a professor are hard to understand from the outside, and the rigid hierarchy of the academic system has been hard to dismantle from the inside, despite reformers' best efforts.
The upper echelons of that community also seem to know how to close ranks. Witness an example now threatening to emerge from the Medical University of Innsbruck, where there are worrying signs that investigations into a scandal of unprecedented dimensions in this small country may be thwarted.
According to a report from the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Safety, a urologist at the university, Hannes Strasser, has conducted a high-profile clinical trial so inappropriately that it must be considered entirely invalid (see page 922). Moreover, that trial represents just a fraction of the total number of patients who paid handsomely for the stem-cell treatment for urinary incontinence without knowing it was experimental.
Strasser's department chair, Georg Bartsch, insists that he has no connection with, and no responsibility for, the scandal — despite having 'honorary authorship' on all the relevant papers, a practice that contravenes the university's code of practice. And Strasser himself has written an open letter to university authorities denying any wrongdoing.
At the beginning of July, a preliminary version of the report was circulated to those involved. Shortly afterwards, for reasons known only to itself, the university council announced plans to fire the university's respected rector, Clemens Sorg — who was going public with the problems — on grounds that many university and clinic officials believe to be invalid. Then the Austrian Academy of Sciences put its independent investigation, requested by Sorg, on hold. And on 13 August, the heads of the university hospital suddenly withdrew a letter of support for Sorg that they had sent out a few days earlier, saying they now realized it interfered with the university's internal affairs.
The council would be wise to think carefully before carrying out its threat to fire the rector under these conditions.
It seems clear that the academy of sciences is doing itself, and the community it represents, an inexcusable disservice by stepping back from helping to resolve a scandal of this magnitude. The academy claims, remarkably, to believe that Sorg asked for its help as an individual, not as the university's representative, and now that he may be dismissed, his concerns may similarly be dismissed — apparently on the grounds that the academy is an independent body. It would display its independence better by carrying forward its investigation into this shameful affair whether the person of the rector changes or not.
The academy is right in pointing out one thing, though. It may be morally responsible, but it is not legally responsible for addressing issues of scientific misconduct. There is no body in Austria with this remit. A few years ago, the ministry of research began discussions about creating a body similar to the US Office of Research Integrity or the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty, but talks have so far come to nothing. Hopefully this affair will at least speed up this process.
It seems axiomatic that the chair of a university department must take responsibility for the goings-on in that department, and most certainly for any paper he or she co-authors. Any responses that the university makes to the report must take these factors into account — whatever steps Bartsch takes to disassociate himself from the affair.
Austria is a small country, and networks between power-brokers are small and tight. But something, it seems, is rotten in the state of Austria, and it needs to be faced and dealt with openly.
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The Lancet (2010)