A former N.C. State chemistry professor says that a reprimand from the National Science Foundation cutting off all his future funding is both “overly punitive” and “an exoneration.”
The National Science Foundation cut off the money to Dan Feldheim after finding that a 2004 Science article claiming a revolutionary biochemistry breakthrough was built on falsified data. The editor of Science said recently the journal would retract the article, which was also written by former NCSU professor Bruce Eaton and then-graduate student Lina Gugliotti.
Science’s decision is likely to have a domino effect by prompting retractions from at least three other journals that published articles derived from the faulty Science article.
Feldheim, who now teaches at the University of Colorado, told the Daily Camera in Boulder that he will not issue the correction drafted by the NSF, saying it is factually inaccurate. Instead, he will go without all future NSF funding “to finally put this matter to rest.”
“As much as I value NSF as a funding agency, when organizations stand in such violent opposition about something, such as the science and scientific ethics involved in this matter, I think it is reasonable that they agree to walk away,” Feldheim wrote in an email to the Daily Camera.
Feldheim said he sees the NSF’s final report as an “exoneration” because the agency did not issue a finding of research misconduct.
The inspector general of the NSF found that Eaton and Feldheim committed research misconduct. The NSF’s chief operating officer stopped short of that finding, which requires intentional or reckless conduct.
Feldheim, Eaton and Gugliotti did not respond to requests for comment.
The News & Observer had reported on the decade-long struggle by Stefan Franzen, an N.C. State chemistry professor, to correct what he came to see as false research by Eaton and Feldheim, his former colleagues.
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 able to step out of the carbon-based world and deploy RNA to bring about the formation of metals.
Falling out among colleagues
After the 2004 Science article, Franzen joined Eaton and Feldheim in landing a private $1 million grant. The grant proposal said the power of evolutionary biology had the promise to produce world-changing inventions such as super-high-strength materials or endless supplies of clean energy from water.
But over time, Franzen became convinced that the research was fraudulent and fell out with his colleagues when they refused to correct the record.
After years of legal threats, investigations and acrimonious exchanges in the arcane journals of research chemistry, Franzen obtained copies of the laboratory notebooks that were the foundation of the Science article.
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.