John Drescher

Drescher: Former NCSU scientist stands by his work – still

Former NCSU scientists, from left, Bruce Eaton, Dan Feldheim and Lina Gugliotti, who were reprimanded and cut off from funding access by the National Science Foundation in Sept. 2015 over misleading research.
Former NCSU scientists, from left, Bruce Eaton, Dan Feldheim and Lina Gugliotti, who were reprimanded and cut off from funding access by the National Science Foundation in Sept. 2015 over misleading research.

As we were reporting a story two years ago about possible research misconduct at N.C. State University, one of the professors involved scoffed that anything was amiss.

“Every year just before the holidays professor (Stefan) Franzen launches some attack of some sort,” Bruce Eaton, formerly of the Department of Chemistry at N.C. State, wrote of his former colleague in a letter to The News & Observer, in which he declined to be interviewed.

“Numerous institutions and government agencies have had scientific experts review the allegations. Professor Franzen has not been satisfied by their conclusions and so he has come to you and the popular press.”

Eaton closed ominously: “Make sure to check your facts carefully.”

Which was an odd statement, given that an NCSU investigative committee already had found that Eaton and a colleague had published falsified data. And that the inspector general of the National Science Foundation had found that Eaton and his colleague had committed “research misconduct.”

We published our two-part series, “Bad Chemistry,” in January 2014. It chronicled Franzen’s efforts to correct what he believed was false research by two former colleagues, Eaton and Dan Feldheim, in a 2004 article published in the journal Science.

Our report, by investigative reporter Joseph Neff, gave an unusually deep and revealing look at how research is conducted in a lab at a major university. Collaboration is vital. In this case, there was a disagreement about the conclusions that grew into a bitter dispute between Franzen, who once was part of the team, and the other two chemists.

In 2004, after the article in Science, the scientists landed a private $1 million grant. Neff reported that the grant proposal promised to use the power of evolutionary biology to produce world-changing inventions. Eaton and Feldheim also received $700,000 in related grant money from the National Science Foundation 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.

As research progressed, Franzen became convinced that the foundation of the project, the 2004 Science article, was based on false data. Our stories reported on his efforts to get the record corrected. After we published, Feldheim objected in a three-page letter.

When in doubt, blame the messenger.

The press, Feldheim wrote, had the “duty to disseminate information to the public in an ethically responsible manner. ... Joseph Neff chose to write a sensational, inaccurate story rather than an accurate and unbiased one.”

The N&O repeatedly sought comment from Feldheim before publication through several channels, including a spokesman for the University of Colorado, where he now teaches. Nonetheless, we reported his criticisms of the story and corrected one point: We said Eaton and Feldheim had patented their process. Actually, it was NCSU that applied for the patent, listing the scientists as inventors entitled to any royalties.

While we corrected that error, Feldheim stood by his research. “Several students have reproduced the original work,” he wrote, “and we stand by our original interpretation of the results and our right to publish them.”

To summarize: NCSU found in 2008 that the research paper contained false data and asked the authors to correct the record.

The NSF inspector general said in 2013 that Feldheim, Eaton and a graduate student “recklessly falsified their work.”

The National Science Foundation recently rendered a final judgment: It reprimanded Eaton and Feldheim and cut them off from future funding.

The journal Science says it will retract the article.

Feldheim, though defunded, remains unmoved. He told the Daily Camera newspaper in Colorado this week that because the NSF did not issue a finding of research misconduct, he sees its final report as an “exoneration.”

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