Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Macchiarini Watch

The podcast Dr. Death has devoted its third season, "Miracle Man," to the wild case of Paolo Macchiarini, the star transplant surgeon and fraud specialist who scammed the Karolinska Institute and many members of the Nobel Prize Committee into believing that he could implant plastic tracheas in humans with the help of magical stem cells. Most of the podcast recaps the story laid out in Adam Ciralsky's riveting article in Vanity Fair, "The celebrity surgeon who used love, money and the pope to scam an NBC News producer" and Bosse Lindquist's astonishing documentary film, The Experiments, but both the article and the film appeared in 2016. Dr. Death brings the story up to date and includes plenty of additional juicy details about Macchiarini's spectacular rise and fall.

One of the responses to the Macchiarini scandal was a decision by the Swedish government to create a central agency to investigate research fraud. Apparently there is no shortage of business so far. Here's a summary from Nature: 

Scientists have inundated Sweden’s new national research-misconduct investigation agency with cases, and there is no sign of a let-up in referrals.

Researchers brought 46 cases to the organization — called the National Board for Assessment of Research Misconduct (NPOF) and based in Uppsala — in its first year, according to a report detailing its activities in 2020. This caseload was three times higher than officials were expecting.

In most countries, universities and research institutions deal with misconduct allegations in-house, which can lead to some cases not being handled fairly or transparently. Sweden followed Denmark — the first country in the world to set up such an agency, in 2017 — in a bid to shake up research-fraud probes.

Experts had warned that the nascent agency could be overwhelmed, and say that the high number of cases could be down to researchers feeling more comfortable about reporting suspicions to an independent agency than to their own institutions, as they did under the previous system.

So far, investigations into 25 of the 46 cases have concluded, with 11 judged to be outside the agency’s remit, 10 researchers acquitted and 4 researchers found guilty of misconduct. Last month, the researcher at the centre of the agency’s first guilty verdict won her court appeal against the decision.

Plus, there is this interesting detail:

The organization handed down its first guilty verdict in September 2020, against biomedical scientist Karin Dahlman-Wright, former vice-president at the Karolinska Institute, who took up her post in the wake of the Macchiarini scandal but stepped down in 2019 when misconduct allegations against her surfaced.

The NPOF found that Dahlman-Wright committed research misconduct, with four of seven research papers investigated containing manipulated images. Dahlman-Wright denied the allegations, and appealed her case at the Administrative Court in Uppsala, which upheld her claim in August. Although the articles “contain images that do not correspond to the results that the images are said to show”, the court said in a statement, it ruled that Dahlman-Wright had not been grossly negligent — an essential component of Sweden’s definition of research misconduct.

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