When the news broke last week that President Obama had selected Francis Collins to be the new director of the National Institutes of Health, I didn’t immediately think of this noted geneticist in connection with a case study in ethics that a visiting scientist had discussed with my health and science journalism class this past spring. It wasn’t until I read The New York Times article on Collins’ appointment that I remembered the scientist’s astute analysis and decided to share it with a wider audience.

The topic of my class this particular afternoon was ethics in science, and in the context of discussing several case studies, my guest speaker, a distinguished geneticist in his own right, brought up an incident that had happened in Collins’ lab in the mid-90s when he was director of the National Center for Human Genome Research at the NIH. In August 1996, Collins was notified by the journal Oncogene that a reviewer who was reading an unpublished manuscript about leukemia genes submitted by Collins and a graduate student in his lab at the University of Michigan had discovered data that looked like a “cut and paste job,” raising questions of intentional deception. Collins started checking into these allegations and discovered an extensive body of systematically fabricated data by this one graduate student of his. He confronted the suspected perpetrator, who confessed, and wrote a letter to about 100 colleagues whose own work might be affected by the falsified data. In the end, two published papers that contained fake data were retracted in toto and three others corrected. The scandal was covered by a number of major news outlets, including The New York Times.

In the NYT article, Lawrence Altman noted that “Dr. Collins rejected the idea that closer supervision would have prevented the problem because the trainee ‘got quite a bit of attention from me’ and with others in the laboratory.” Interestingly enough, that was precisely the point around which my guest speaker wove his ethical case study. Collins’ name was on all the papers that were found to contain falsified data, the guest speaker noted. He then asked my students, “Can a person with Collins’ enormous management responsibilities (he was not only overseeing the $189 million human genome project at the time but still operating his lab at the University of Michigan) pay adequate attention to the daily operation of his lab, ensure the quality of the data produced, and guarantee that the papers published under his name are valid?” The conclusion we reached together was no. Collins was juggling too many responsibilities and should not have put his name on these scientific papers because he didn’t really have the time to scrutinize the data. What Collins was guilty of, the visiting scientist said, was both a lack of judgment and a conflict of effort.

He then asked an even more thought-provoking question: what does this incident say about the contention that science polices and corrects its own errors through peer review? If this and more recent cases of extensive scientific fraud (I’m thinking here of the Massachusetts anesthesiologist case I wrote about in my blog and the former Army scientist and Medtronics consultant currently in the news) are any indication, the answer is: maybe. Eventually, most cases of extensive fraud may be exposed but only after a great deal of harm has been done to patients and the credibility of the medical research process. Our current system of peer review is far from foolproof in ferreting out fraud, especially when we have star scientists, like Collins, who are too busy trying to burnish their reputations to pay much attention to what is going on beneath their noses.

I can only hope that Collins, if he becomes the next director of the NIH, has taken to heart the lessons from his own lab.

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