Researcher Eric Poehlman was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison today for making a false statement on a federal grant application in 1999. The action by U.S. District Judge William Sessions in Burlington, Vermont, ends the most extensive case of scientific misconduct in the history of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Experts say the case marks the first time a U.S. scientist will serve jail time for research misconduct not linked to fatalities.
Poehlman admitted in a plea agreement last year to falsifying 15 federal grant applications in addition to as many as 10 articles beginning in 1992 and spanning a decade (Science, 25 March 2005, p. 1851) while he was a scientist at the University of Vermont College of Medicine in Burlington and, before then, the University of Maryland, Baltimore. The work involved obesity, metabolism, and menopause. Eight journals have run retractions of his papers, including the Annals of Internal Medicine. More than 200 other articles he authored remain in the literature. Prosecutors said that Poehlman made what a clerk called "factual misstatements" in an earlier federal hearing; that offense worsened the sentence.
In a letter to the judge earlier this month, Poehlman explained that he was "motivated by my own desire to advance as a respected scientist" and added that he was "ashamed of myself for falsifying and fabricating data. ... I believed that because the research questions I had framed were legitimate and worthy of study, it was okay to misrepresent 'minor' pieces of data to increase the odds that the grant would be awarded."
Poehlman faced up to 5 years in jail and has already paid a $180,000 fine. He has also been barred for life from receiving federal research funding.
The first questions about Poehlman's conduct were raised by a 24-year-old research assistant in Poehlman's lab at the University of Vermont. The university found falsifications in three papers, and a 2-year probe by NIH uncovered the rest of the crimes. A university review of Poehlman's scientific work at the University of Montreal, which he joined in 2001, found no wrongdoing in work he'd done there.
A number of scientists joined his friends in appealing to the judge for leniency. "I do believe he still has a great deal to offer the scientific community," wrote Ross Andersen, an obesity expert at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.