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Home for Scientific Whistleblowers

Whistleblowers who accuse their peers of scientific misconduct may soon get some full-time support--from a Michigan-based organization calling itself Whistleblowers for Integrity in Science and Education (WISE). The outfit, which has existed as an informal concept until now, may get a regular office and staff this year, thanks to funds promised by Carolyn Phinney, a psychologist formerly at the University of Michigan (UM), Ann Arbor.

In July, Phinney won $1.67 million in a Michigan state court judgment against UM and two senior researchers whom Phinney had accused of using her data without authorization, according to the New York Times. Phinney, who had done research at UM's Institute of Gerontology, asked the university to intervene in 1988. Dissatisfied with the school's response, Phinney filed suit, deliberately avoiding the cumbersome federal system for punishing misconduct, she says. She won a jury trial in 1993 and was upheld when UM appealed to a higher state court. In July, UM decided not to pursue the case further and wrote a check to Phinney--even though a spokesperson says UM "remains convinced" that the jury was "in error."

Phinney says that she and physical education professor Robert Sprague of the University of Illinois, Urbana, conceived of WISE several years ago. Sprague was also involved in a long-running battle after accusing others of scientific misconduct; both consider themselves whistleblowers. Having gone through the experience, they say, they would like to help others avoid it. Now, Phinney intends to use some of her settlement money on WISE to offer counseling, link up a network of informed lawyers, and provide wider access to a database on misconduct cases maintained by Sprague.