Brian Wansink

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Cornell nutrition scientist resigns after retractions and research misconduct finding

Brian Wansink, the Cornell University nutrition researcher known for probing the psychology behind human eating habits, has resigned after a university misconduct investigation, and following the retraction this week of six of his papers.

In a statement issued yesterday, Cornell’s provost, Michael Kotlikoff, said the investigation had revealed “misreporting of research data, problematic statistical techniques, failure to properly document and preserve research results, and inappropriate authorship.”

Wansink contested the university’s conclusion in a statement shared with Science, saying, “The interpretation of these four acts of misconduct can be debated, and I did so for a year without the success I expected.” He admitted to mistaken reporting, poor documentation, and “some statistical mistakes,” but maintains that there was “no fraud, no intentional misreporting, no plagiarism, or no misappropriation” in his work. “I believe all of my findings will be either supported, extended, or modified by other research groups,” he added.

Wansink, who directed Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab, won public attention for headline-friendly findings suggesting that it’s relatively easy to manipulate what people choose to eat—and in what quantities—by tweaking features of their environments. Among the papers retracted by The Journal of the American Medical Association on 19 September are one finding that people ate more calories while watching a stimulating action movie than a tame interview show and another concluding that people given bigger bowls at a Super Bowl party served themselves more calories.

But Wansink drew criticism for a 2016 blog post in which he seemed to praise a grad student for massaging negative results into positive ones. Several of his findings were questioned in online analyses published by research integrity watchdogs Nick Brown of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and James Heathers of Northeastern University in Boston. Thirteen of his papers have now been retracted, and at least 15 more have been formally corrected, according to Retraction Watch.

Wansink has been removed from research and teaching, according to Cornell, but he’ll “be obligated to spend his time cooperating with the university in its ongoing review of his prior research.”