A former Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) eye researcher, Peter Francis, has received a reprimand from the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI). The reason for the reprimand is that an institutional investigation found Francis guilty of research misconduct. Specifically, Francis faked data for a grant application by writing about an experiment that he never did. Francis left the university at the end of the investigation, but now faces two years of supervised research and also any of his future proposals for federal research funding will be subjected to intense scrutiny.
The National Institutes of Health of NIH contains a division called the National Eye Institute, which funds a large proportion of the eye-based research in the United States. In a grant to the National Eye Institute, Francis claimed to have performed experiments that had not been done. Furthermore, he used that information to apply for more than one grant, according to a statement from the ORI.
John Dahlberg, the director of ORI’s division of investigative oversight commented, “The pressures to succeed are difficult, making it even more difficult to get funding.” Dahlberg also said that fabrication of results and data is “not uncommon,” but he also ominously noted that such an offense can be considered and prosecuted as a felony.
In the suspicious grant proposals, Francis claimed to have injected retinal pigment epithelial cells that were made from rhesus monkey embryonic stem cells into rats that had been genetically conditioned to retinal degeneration. The grant observed that those rats that had received the injected eye cells had better-preserved photoreceptor cells in comparison to rats that had received injections into their retinas that did not contain any cells. During the ORI investigation, Francis admitted that the experiment described in the grant had not been done before the submission of either grant proposal.
Francis had won the National Research prize for “Best Up-and-Coming Medical Research in the UK” in 2002 for his research into the genetic basis of congenital cataracts. More recently, the Foundation for Fighting Blindness and Research to Prevent Blindness awarded Francis a career development award. Francis also worked with Advanced Cell Technologies in Santa Monica, CA, which is one of the premier companies when it comes to developing cell-based therapies for retinal disease.
A search of the bio-informational site PubMed shows that Francis has published more than 75 articles. These include articles in prestigious journals such as Public Library of Science One, New England Journal of Medicine, and the Journal of the American Medical Association. The investigation found no misconduct with his published work while at OHSU’s Casey Eye Institute.
OHSU published a statement that appeared at the blog Retraction Watch. According to this statement, OHSU “takes research integrity matters very seriously,” and placed Francis on leave when his research projects were questioned. The university’s Scientific Integrity Committee performed the investigation and reported the results to the ORI. According to this published statement, at the end of the investigation, Francis decided to leave the university.
Francis has also entered into a voluntary settlement agreement with the Department of Health and Human Services, in which the NIH is housed. Effective March 29, 2012, for the next two years, all of Francis’ federally-funded research projects will be supervised by whatever institute decides to employ him. That institution must also verify that all results or methods that he submits in grant proposals are accurately reported. He will also have to recuse himself from serving in any advisory capacity to the Public Health Service on peer review and board committees or as a consultant.
NIH still recognizes the importance of the research currently being done in his former lab and has determined that a new principal investigator should be appointed to continue the work.