Lydia Polimeni, National Institutes of Health

U.S. researchers guilty of misconduct later won more than $100 million in NIH grants, study finds

Many believe that once a scientist is found guilty of research misconduct, his or her scientific career is over. But a new study suggests that, for many U.S. researchers judged to have misbehaved, there is such a thing as a second chance.

Nearly one-half of 284 researchers who were sanctioned for research misconduct in the last 25 years by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the largest U.S. funder of biomedical research, ultimately continued to publish or work in research in some capacity, according to a new analysis.

And a small number of those scientists—17, to be exact—went on to collectively win $101 million in new funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Those numbers “really surprised” Kyle Galbraith, research integrity officer at the University of Illinois in Urbana and author of the new study, published earlier this month by the Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics. “I knew from my work and reading other studies that careers after misconduct were possible. But the volume kind of shocked me,” he says.

Galbraith identified 284 people who had been subjected to sanctions by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI) between April 1992 and February 2016 for scientific misconduct (falsifying or fabricating data, or plagiarism). Sanctions included being temporarily (or, in rare cases, permanently) barred from receiving funding from the federal Public Health Service (PHS, which includes NIH and other HHS agencies) or serving on PHS advisory boards and grant review panels, having their research supervised, or submitting corrections or retractions to published articles.

Galbraith then searched through public databases and online resources to see how many of the 284 sanctioned researchers continued on in research. He searched for papers they had published in journals indexed by PubMed, grants they had won from NIH, and evidence that they held appointments in research fields. He found that nearly half—47.2%—had continued in research.

Overall, 23 of the scientists (roughly 8% of sanctioned researchers) received NIH funding after receiving an ORI sanction. Of that group, 17 researchers won more than $101 million for 61 new projects. Thirteen continued to receive funding from NIH grants that had been awarded before being sanctioned. 

“Clearly, misconduct is not the career-killer one might have expected,” says Galbraith. But a researcher’s place in the academic pecking order appears to matter. Researchers who were faculty members at the time of their sanction were most likely to continue their work. But those in more junior positions, such as graduate students and lab technicians, were less likely to show signs of remaining in research.

Galbraith’s findings are likely to upset researchers who don’t think scientists who have committed misconduct deserve a second chance– particularly at a time when even scientists with unblemished records struggle to win NIH grants.

“I think it’s a fair question to ask if it’s right for those [scarce] resources to go to someone who’s been found guilty of misconduct,” Galbraith says. But even he’s not sure about the final answer. “It depends on what day you ask me,” he says. He notes that one new initiative—known as the P.I. Program—is trying to rehabilitate scientists from various U.S. universities with a history of bad behavior. And Galbraith says his findings suggest that at least NIH is willing to overlook past transgressions. “The sheer amount of funds given [to those sanctioned for misconduct] suggests the agency is at least open to second chances.”

(To learn more about how some scientists fare after a federal sanction for misconduct, see Science reporter Jeffrey Mervis’s story about researchers debarred by another major federal science funder, the National Science Foundation.)