Scientists sent to prison for fraudulent conduct

Every year around the world, scientists and other researchers are found to have committed various acts of fraud, often after they were discovered to have manipulated research findings. But rarely do they suffer any more severe punishment than being dismissed and, occasionally, having their reputations irreparably damaged in the media.

Sometimes, though, a fraudster is actually sent to jail – as happened last month when a British scientist was convicted of scientific fraud after falsifying research data. Steven Eaton became the first person to serve time under the UK’s 1999 Good Laboratory Practice Regulations and was sentenced to three months in jail.

Eaton had tampered with data from pre-clinical trials of an anti-cancer drug while working at the now-closed Edinburgh branch of US pharmaceutical company Aptuit.

The BBC reported that in handing down the sentence, Sheriff Michael O’Grady said had the fraud not been discovered, Eaton could have caused cancer patients “unquestionable harm”.

The case began in 2009 when the pharmaceutical company noticed irregularities in Eaton’s data while conducting quality control procedures.

The company notified the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency which, after conducting an investigation, found Eaton had been falsifying results of experiments to make them appear successful as far back as 2003.

Ivan Oransky, a clinical assistant professor at New York University and co-author of the blog Retraction Watch, which collates notices of retractions and scientific fraud, said it was unusual to see researchers jailed for professional misconduct.

Oransky said that in the past five years, the US Office of Research Integrity had found more than 40 researchers guilty of misconduct but only two had served any time in prison.

One was Eric T Poehlman, a scientist in the field of human obesity and ageing, who was jailed for six months for falsifying data in a grant application. He also published fraudulent research alleging that hormone replacement injections could serve as a therapy for menopause when it had no proven medical benefits at all.

Another researcher to face a term in jail was Luk van Parijs, an associate professor of biology at MIT’s centre for cancer research. He was sacked for misconduct after fabricating and falsifying research data in a paper, several unpublished manuscripts, and grant applications.

In March 2011, Van Parijs pleaded guilty in a US court to making a false statement on a federal grant application. The government called for a six-month jail term because of the seriousness of the fraud, which involved a US$2-million government grant.

After several prominent scientists, including Van Parijs' former post-doc supervisor, pleaded for clemency, Van Parijs was sentenced to six months of home detention with electronic monitoring, plus 400 hours of community service and a payment to MIT of US$61,117 – restitution for the already-spent grant money that MIT had to return to the National Institutes of Health.

In another instance, in 2010, an anesthesiologist named Scott Reuben was sentenced to six months in prison for healthcare fraud. This followed the revelation that he had fabricated data and had committed “related misdeeds” in six drug trials.

Reuben, a former chief of the acute pain clinic at a medical clinic in Springfield, Massachusetts, was also ordered to pay a $5,000 fine, to pay $361,932 in restitution to the drug companies that funded his research and to forfeit $50,000 in assets. After serving time in prison, Reuben had to undergo three years of supervised release, the Justice Department said.

These researchers, however, remain among the few of an undoubtedly large number of crooked scientists to face a court and be punished for their crimes.