The National Science Foundation has reprimanded and cut off access to funding for two former N.C. State University chemistry professors and a former doctoral candidate for their “misleading” 2004 article published in the journal Science.
The NSF ruling marks the final chapter in a decadelong struggle by Stefan Franzen, an N.C. State chemistry professor, to correct what he came to see as false research by two former colleagues, Bruce Eaton and Dan Feldheim. Franzen’s attempt to correct the scientific record was chronicled in “Bad Chemistry,” a News & Observer series published in January 2014.
The NSF’s final decision, written by Chief Operating Officer Richard Buckius, agreed with what an NCSU investigative committee found in 2008: The Science article, which claimed a revolutionary breakthrough in biochemistry, was built on falsified data.
“The scientific enterprise is based on trust ...,” Buckius wrote. “If this inherent trust is broken, the entire enterprise is undermined, to the detriment of U.S. science.”
The research that led to the article was supported with grants from the National Science Foundation, a federal agency that funds about a quarter of all basic university research through thousands of grants to tens of thousands of researchers annually.
The scientific enterprise is based on trust. … If this inherent trust is broken, the entire enterprise is undermined, to the detriment of U.S. science.
Richard Buckius, chief operating officer, National Science Foundation
The final NSF decision did not conclude that the scientists acted intentionally or recklessly, which would have resulted in a finding of research misconduct. That decision was a step back from the findings of the Office of Inspector General, the investigative arm of the NSF, which concluded in 2013 that Eaton, Feldheim and doctoral candidate Lina Gugliotti had acted recklessly and committed research misconduct.
The Buckius letter bans the scientists from receiving any future NSF funding unless they submit a statement to Science clarifying the record. This indefinite ban may prove to be a stiffer penalty than the three-year ban recommended by the Inspector General. Science did not respond to questions this week.
Chancellor Randy Woodson, who arrived at N.C. State after the university concluded its internal investigation, declined to be interviewed. In a statement, university spokesman Brad Bohlander noted that the NSF’s reprimand was not addressed to the university but to people no longer at N.C. State.
“NC State appreciates the NSF’s attention to this matter and respects its findings,” Bohlander said. “The NSF and NC State consider the case closed.”
Eaton and Feldheim did not respond to requests for comment.
A long fight
The heart of the 2004 Science paper was the claim that Feldheim, Eaton and Gugliotti used a complex mix of RNA and water to create tiny hexagonal crystals of palladium, a valuable metal with many industrial uses.
All life is carbon-based, and DNA and RNA regulate the creation of carbon-based cells. Feldheim and Eaton asserted that they were now able to step out of the carbon-based world and deploy RNA to bring about the formation of metals.
In 2004, after the article in Science, Franzen had joined Eaton and Feldheim in landing a private $1 million grant. The grant proposal promised to use the power of evolutionary biology to produce world-changing inventions. Scientists could use RNA, molecules that act as genetic messengers within cells, to create super high-strength materials, or endless supplies of clean energy from water, they wrote.
Eaton and Feldheim also received $700,000 in related grant money from the NSF and the U.S. Department of Energy.
As research progressed, Franzen became convinced that the foundation of the project, the 2004 Science article, was based on false data. Franzen submitted a letter of resignation from the project, precipitating legal threats and a bitter battle in the arcane journals of research chemistry. (Franzen’s department chair refused to accept his resignation, because NCSU would have lost control of the project and its equipment.)
In 2008, an internal NCSU investigation concluded that the original paper contained false data and departed from acceptable scientific practices. The investigation stopped short of finding research misconduct, concluding that Feldheim – who was responsible for verifying the presence of palladium crystals – had acted negligently, not intentionally or recklessly.
Eaton and Feldheim had both moved to the University of Colorado, which conducted its own investigation and found no wrongdoing.
N.C. State forwarded its findings to the National Science Foundation. The NSF’s inspector general produced a 35-page investigative report in 2013 that is now public for the first time, though heavily redacted. The NSF quietly posted its final seven-page decision in September, ending a seven-year investigation.
The inspector general concluded that the 2004 Science article was not supported by data and that the three scientists had acted recklessly in publishing the paper and failing to correct the errors. They were three of the 19 scientists found by the inspector general in 2013 to have committed research misconduct, and three of five recommended to lose future NSF funding.
The inspector general’s report also pointed to lapses in the internal investigations. The N.C. State investigative committee, for example, did not examine Gugliotti’s lab notebooks, which were the basis of the Science article.
The University of Colorado investigation had more problems, according to the report. For one, it inaccurately said that N.C. State had “exonerated” Feldheim and Eaton. N.C. State had found that Feldheim acted negligently and that all three published false statements.
The inspector general said Colorado failed to contact key witnesses and accepted the promises of Feldheim and Eaton to correct the record, which they have not done.
Joseph Rosse, head of research integrity and compliance at Colorado, declined to be interviewed.
Opening a notebook
Perhaps the most surprising finding from the inspector general’s 2013 report was that Feldheim and Eaton never examined Gugliotti’s lab notebooks, even after the investigations began.
Franzen, on the other hand, pushed hard to examine the original records. When N.C. State declined to give him access to the notebooks, Franzen spent more than $1,000 of his own money on a lawyer, who succeeded in obtaining the records.
Franzen said the notebooks revealed “an open-and-shut case of research fraud.” The smoking gun, he said, was a series of images that purported to be palladium crystals manufactured by RNA. The crystals were degrading at room temperature; palladium has a melting point of 2,831 degrees Fahrenheit and, like gold or platinum, does not degrade at room temperature.
The inspector general’s investigation said that the lab notebooks directly contradicted the Science article, and its report criticized the scientists for refusing to correct the record.
The three scientists’ “apparent and continued unwillingness to correct the original research record, and willingness to take actions that added confusion and obfuscated their misconduct, exacerbates the seriousness of the distortion of the research record,” the report said.
While the inspector general determined that the three scientists had committed research misconduct, the NSF, in Buckius’ letter of reprimand, settled on a lesser finding, that the conduct represented “a significant departure from standard research practices.”
Franzen noted that this finding was not subject to appeal, allowing the NSF to finally close the case. A finding of research misconduct would have allowed the scientists further appeals.
Franzen said that Feldheim and Eaton’s ultimate mistake was to violate basic rules of scientific research:
▪ Be transparent.
▪ Publish all test results.
▪ Quickly correct all errors.
Franzen said they saw the pictures of the particles, jumped to the conclusion that they must be palladium, and never changed course in the face of contrary evidence.
They didn’t set out to falsify data. They refused to correct their negligence.
Stefan Franzen, N.C. State chemistry professor, speaking of former colleagues Bruce Eaton and Dan Feldheim
“They didn’t set out to falsify data,” he said in a recent interview. “They refused to correct their negligence.”
Franzen said he would like, but does not expect, apologies from Feldheim, Eaton and their colleagues who conducted the internal University of Colorado investigation. Franzen called it a “sham inquiry.”
The investigation was led by Colorado physics professor Alan Franklin, who told The Daily Camera of Boulder in 2014 that Franzen had “made a career” of complaining about Feldheim and Eaton.
“There’s been great damage done to people, mainly Eaton and Feldheim, for no good reason,” Franklin told the newspaper.
Contacted this week, Franklin declined to discuss the final NSF reprimand, saying it was a confidential personnel matter.
Franzen welcomed the NSF ruling as vindication of his struggle to correct the record but said he remains bitter at how he says Feldheim, Eaton and their allies have sullied his reputation for years. Instead of addressing the underlying science, he said, his adversaries hired lawyers to gum up and prolong the investigations and resorted to personal insults to slander him.
“For scientists, our lifeblood is what our peers think of us,” Franzen said. “Our reputation is pretty much everything, especially when it comes to funding.”