Thursday, February 25, 2010

Oh! what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive!

This is, at the very least a cautionary tale from the world of government-funded scientific research. (And no, it's not from the University of East Anglia.) The story comes from Buffalo, and has nothing to do with climatology. The researcher in question, William Fals-Stewart, a psychologist, worked in the areas of substance abuse, and addiction therapy. He received awards for his work and the University of Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions.

The institute's research runs on federal grants, as do many university based research entities. For this reason, the tale is quite tangled. But we can glean the following:

The university receives about 500 million dollars annually in research grants. There had been some questions as to how the funding was distributed, or used once received. Apparently, some funds specifically earmarked, were instead thrown into something like a general fund, without notice of the change in purposing. (One suspects this is not entirely unheard of.) Fals-Stewart himself claimed over the course of his tenure at the Research Institute on Addictions (2000 until January 2005) to have raised 12 million in research grants. Sometime in 2004 suspicions arose that he had been inflating claims as to the number of volunteer subjects in his studies. The falsification was egregious enough to prompt an internal investigation. FS left the university. Later, in 2007, a hearing was conducted on his research.

This is where things get bizarre. Falls-Stewart hatched a scheme to clear his name, while at the same time, making the accusation that the university was after him because he was a whistle-blower. He claims that his questioning and whistle blowing brought the feds down upon the university, so the university went after him, creating a hostile atmosphere that forced him to leave. He took another post in another New York university, (which he eventually resigned for unspecified reasons.)

The researcher said he believed state officials made the false allegations to discredit him because he was aggressively asking questions about the use of millions of dollars in federal research grants at UB and other state universities.

He said he uncovered information that the state university system sometimes obtains federal funding that is designated for one specific project and then uses the money for other projects, a violation of state law.

A 2008 audit conducted by UB found some "inconsistencies" in how UB used some federal money at the Research Institute on Addictions in the years 2002-04. But UB officials told The News last year that any problems found in the audit have since been corrected.

Last year, prosecutors from the U.S. attorney's office in Buffalo began an investigation into how the state universities spend $500 million a year in federal research funding. Fals-Stewart claimed that his questions touched off the statewide investigation, but the U.S. attorney's office declined to confirm or deny his role in the probe.

Being on the outside, we have no way to corroborate either the chronology nor the alleged motivations of the university. The fact is, that they did investigate FS, and held a hearing in 2007. Now we enter the realm of the bizarre:

FS hired three actors to "play" the roles of supportive witnesses phoning in testimony. He concocted scripts and provided names for them to use, all the while telling them that they were actually taking part in a training exercise, a mock trial. The actors had no idea what was really taking place. They were in fact calling in to a UB hearing that had been convened to consider charges of data falsification against FS.

In court papers, prosecutors said Fals-Stewart hired three Buffalo-area actors to portray witnesses whose testimony supported his case. The witnesses testified by telephone because Fals-Stewart claimed they were out of town and unavailable to appear in person.

"In reality, they were actors who thought they were taking part in a mock trial," the attorney general's office said. "[Fals-Stewart] told the three actors, whom he had hired before for legitimate training videos, that they would be performing in a mock trial training exercise. They were not aware that they were testifying at a real administrative hearing, nor did they know they were impersonating real people."

Fals-Stewart provided the actors with "scripts" that "were riddled with inaccuracies regarding his research," state attorneys said.

The three actors — identified in court papers as Ray Ammerman, Elaine Heckler and Moira Keenan — were unaware that they were taking part in a scam and will not be charged in the case, state officials said. Efforts to reach the three performers late Tuesday were unsuccessful.

On the basis of the scripted phone-in testimony, FS was acquitted of charges:

In a report issued by the panel in May 2008, Johnstone and other panel members concluded that they found "insufficient evidence" for the scientific misconduct charges.

The report said the panel heard testimony from more than 20 witnesses. Cynthia Stappenbeck, Charles McKinnivan and Janet Martin, the three witnesses who were allegedly portrayed by the actors hired by Fals-Stewart, were listed in the report among those who gave testimony.

After acquittal, he believed he could take the state to court for wrongful termination, and collect a cool 4 mill. So, he in fact filed suit.

But Fals-Stewart was charged with felony crimes Tuesday, and he is in serious trouble for the role he played that day.

Investigators from the state attorney general's office arrested Fals-Stewart, 48, of Eden, and accused him of using actors to portray witnesses testifying on his behalf at the hearing.

"The charges in this case allege a pattern of lies and deceit that a public employee used to attempt to defraud New York's taxpayers of millions of dollars," Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo said in announcing the arrest. "[Investigators] discovered the alleged fraud, forced Fals-Stewart to withdraw his lawsuit and initiated a criminal investigation."

Fals-Stewart was charged with attempted grand larceny, three counts of perjury, three counts of identify theft, two counts of offering a false instrument and three counts of falsifying business records, all felonies. He and his attorney, Joel L. Daniels, could not be reached to comment.

Hubris brought on Nemesis, not merely in a metaphorical sense, but in the Greek sense as well.

Today, we learn that FS was found dead in his house, after having been arrested and charged.

Take-aways? The large amounts of government funds that go into research, coupled with the large amount of institutions carrying on research make it impossible for funding agencies to give detailed oversight either of allocation of funds or research integrity. There will always be a certain amount of such corruption. Nevertheless, due to the fact that taxpayer money is involved, the government and the schools have an ongoing duty to make best efforts at such oversight, despite the imperfections in the system. Schools have internal controls, but the government agencies must increase presence.

On the other hand, more attention should be focused on individuals at the institutions. In terms of procedure, improved transparency of reports from individual researchers to research unit, and university or research institution to funding agencies must be demanded. Full and ongoing transparency must be demanded at every step in the research process. Time consuming? Yes, but it avoids these episodes of embarrassment for institutions. This will require that attitudes change toward jealously guarded data sets. If a full and ongoing accounting of his data set had been a permanent feature of oversight, carried on in a confidential manner by those funding his research, that would have struck a good balance between his rights to intellectual property, and the funder's rights to oversee. His work would have been cut short well before money had been wasted, life lost, and family wrecked. Furthermore, once studies are complete, and published, it is imperative that all data be published as well, so that the work of corroboration can be carried out by interested parties.

If one wants to see further negative consequences of lack of transparency, one has only to look at the ongoing Climategate fiasco. FOI requests were ignored, and credibility lost due to the attractive powers of a seemingly limitless source of funding, via governments, funding attended with little oversight. How tempting is it too produce results to the liking of big government, use that to parley some follow-on funding for further study, and how tempting it is, in light of this, to cook data, hide data, or massage it in ways intended to bait the bounty? Tempting indeed. The work of individuals outside the closed loop ended up doing what should have been done in the first place, laying out the data for scrutiny.

A requirement for transparency, and a full publishing of data sets will naturally be an impetus to honesty, and external motivation that we should certainly not eschew as unnecessary. We all need prodding from time to time to move in the right direction. There is no shame in admitting as much. Saints we are not.

Along with requiring a thoroughgoing transparency at all stages of the research process, there should also be serious attention paid to tragedies in such cases as this. It can be the basis of a requirement aimed more at the researcher as subject (no pun intended), which can bring people to a more explicit understanding of their moral obligations as scientists and the complex of factors that can cloud their moral awareness, judgment and courage.

Had FS thought about the repercussions of his choices upon his family, his school, his colleagues, his field, would he have been less tempted to act bizarrely, less prone to hubris? Perhaps. Perhaps not. We have no window into his character. But we can imagine that most people would be swayed by witnessing tragic plays such as his. So, there should be a regime of ethics training centered around such cases, presented in a way that has the sort of strong subjective impact the ancient Greek theatre had upon its audience. It has an educational purpose, as Aristotle rightly pointed out.