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Looking for 'Teeth'

It's the rare case in which a scientist who is found guilty of research misconduct has to resign let alone face the possibility of jail, write Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky from Retraction Watch in a New York Times op-ed piece.

In it, they also call for increased regulatory authority for Office of Research Integrity.

They highlight the uncommon nature of the on-going misconduct case involving Dong-Pyou Han at Iowa State University.

Han, who allegedly confessed to spiking rabbit blood samples with human antibodies to make it appear as if an experimental HIV vaccine was more encouraging than it really was to win grant funding, was banned from receiving federal research funding for three years and had to resign his post. His case now has been taken up by federal prosecutors who have charged him with making false statements. Han has pleaded not guilty.

This, Marcus and Oransky say, is most uncommon.

"Even though research misconduct is far from rare, Dr. Han's case was unusual in that he had to resign," the pair writes. "Criminal charges against scientists who commit fraud are even more uncommon." Also rare, they note, is that Iowa State is reimbursing the government some $500,000 for Han's salary, and the National Institutes of Health is not giving Iowa State $1.4 million that it was to receive as part of the disputed grant.

These unusual moves, Marcus and Oransky note, stem from the case catching the attention of Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who lamented the light penalty Han received from ORI in a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services in February and asked to know why there wasn't an effort to recover the federal grant money spent on this work.

To do so, ORI, Marcus and Oransky say, "needs teeth." To start, they suggest that the office be given subpoena power and increased funding.

"Recouping losses from fraud and deliberate misconduct — not shrugging them off — should be a high priority for federal agencies that fund scientific research," they add.