Australian Whistleblower Reveals Fraudulent Scientists

It is good to see some Court taking the problem of fraudulent scientific research seriously even if that Court is literally half a world away.

According to Science Alert an Australian Court took allegations of published fraudulent data pretty seriously. The Case involved:

“Bruce Murdoch, an Australian neuroscientist who’s just received a two-year suspended sentence after pleading guilty to 17 fraud-related charges, relating to how he falsified data to hype-up a ‘breakthrough’ treatment for Parkinson’s disease.”

Apparently the researcher did it for the money. By United States standards it is a relatively low amount of money at least for this researcher as he obtained $20,000 to study this idea even though he knew it was all a fake.

The relatively unusual fact in this case is that the researcher published a paper in a prestigious journal reporting the results of a clinical trial for which the Magistrate Judge could find no evidence to support.  Not evidence supporting the findings of the clinical trial mind you, the Magistrate Judge could not find evidence the clinical trial was ever done at all.

The co-author on the paper, Caroline Barwood, also has been charged and the University of Queensland has returned installments on the $300,000 grant.  You get one guess as to how the Australian Crime and Corruption Commission learned about all this in the first place. That is correct, a whistleblower came forward and provided the information.

I wish I could tell you that false grant fund cases are easy to prosecute or that there was not a need for these cases to be brought because our scientific community is above defrauding the government.  Neither is true.

These cases can be difficult because tracing the exact “promise” in a grant fund case can be difficult and how the grantees use the money may vary and be difficult to demonstrate as fraud.  It does not take much, unfortunately, in fudging data to find a very impressive hypothesis worthy of further study, at a cost to the government of millions of dollars.

The truly fraudulent scientists have the advantage of the fact that most of their peers are not dishonest and they therefore are a little insulated as a profession from suspicion. They also presumably know the subject matter under study and that can make pursuing a fraud claim difficult as well. How after all are us mere mortals to understand what they are doing when a scientist fakes data or methods in support of a phony theory?

It is good to see a judge (again even if that judge is half a world away) taking this issue seriously.  Science Alert quoted the District Judge James Gritzner as saying “the seriousness of this offence is just stunning.”

While it is US Department of Justice policy to review all False Claims Act cases for criminal liability, it would be unusual for the government to prosecute somebody who knowingly defrauded the government of grant money in a criminal action.

Civil False Claims Act cases are filed here and they can be successful, if as in this case, the evidence is compelling.  Scientific fraud brings up a problem which is endemic to all False Claims Act cases and which this case from Australia typifies. The underlying science may be very complicated.

Certainly actual scientific issues surrounding Parkinson’s disease are not going to be easy to understand. But the fraud, claiming there was a clinical trial when there was not one and publishing the results is pretty simple.

That is the kind of case that should work as well here as in Australia.