PRISM Magazine  - October 1999
Scientific Skulduggery

by David Brindley

  "I can resist everything," Oscar Wilde once quipped, "except temptation." The same apparently goes for some scientists.

A cellular biologist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., was found last spring to have faked his data in two studies published in 1992 that linked high-voltage power lines to cancer. Robert P. Liburdy claimed to have found a connection between the electromagnetic fields around power lines and certain cellular changes in the body. Those findings, long suspected by one segment of scientists but never before confirmed, contributed to public fear about cancer.

After a whistle-blower at the laboratory challenged Liburdy's results, an internal investigation began. In July 1995, the investigators concluded that Liburdy had indeed falsified information, and they referred the case to the federal Office of Research Integrity (ORI). That agency ruled last July that Liburdy had "engaged in scientific misconduct in biomedical research by intentionally falsifying and fabricating data and claims." In addition, ORI said that "the evidence demonstrates Liburdy knew his data manipulations were significant to the conclusions of the paper."

In a letter to the journal Science , however, Liburdy denied doing anything wrong. "My scientific conclusions stand as published," he wrote. "I admit no scientific wrongdoing." He added that he couldn't afford an expensive legal battle and decided to settle without admitting liability. Last March, he resigned from his 15-year position at the Lawrence Berkeley lab after losing $3.3 million in federal grants for his research, which ORI officials said he won based on the misrepresentations made in his studies.

Such cases of scientific malfeasance are rare, though. Since it was established in 1992, ORI has dealt with more than 1,000 allegations of fabrication and falsification of data and plagiarism among tens of thousands of research projects amounting to more than $8 billion a year. Of the complaints received, about 20% required a formal inquiry and misconduct was found in just over 100 cases.

There is honor among scientists after all.


"Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small
one for Neil, but that's a long one for me.

      —Former astronaut and aeronautical engineer Charles "Pete" Conrad (1930-1999) after taking his first step on the moon in 1969. Conrad, the third man to set foot on the lunar surface, died following a motorcycle accident in July.

Fewer Techies

The tight high-tech labor market isn't likely to loosen anytime soon. In fact, it may get even tighter. The number of high-tech degrees awarded in the U.S. fell 5 percent between 1990 and 1996, according to a recent study by the American Electronics Association, an industry trade group.

Engineering and engineering technology were among the six fields the study considered as "high-tech." The total number of degrees awarded in those two fields fell almost 9 percent, from 132,339 in 1990 to 120,715 in 1996, the latest figures available.

The study also found that 45 percent of total high-tech Ph.D. degrees went to foreign nationals in 1996 while only 7 percent of the bachelor degrees were granted to foreigners in the same year. California was the top state in the number of high-tech degrees conferred in 1996 with 20,809, followed by New York (16,437) and Texas (12,991). But California also experienced one of the worst declines, according to the study, awarding 1,600 fewer degrees in 1996 than in 1990. Virginia bucked the national downward trend by giving 1,200 more high-tech degrees in 1996 than in 1990.

Let's hope in this case that what goes down eventually comes up.